What is Interesting?
April 12, 2005 12:09 AM   Subscribe

What makes something Interesting?

Specifically, what is it about fractals, The Game of Life, the screensaver on my laptop that keeps distracting me (whoo, xscreensaver), and abstract art that causes me to stare at them for long periods of time without getting bored? It's not relevance or usefulness to my life, and it seems to be more than just the low level interest that, say, shiny things offer. Cognitive Science/Psychology and personal experience answers would both be appreciated!
posted by JZig to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's no different than staring at a fire, or watching clouds move, or watching the swirls of cream in a cup of coffee... Humans have been mesmerized by the patterns and chaos of our world ever since we were able to, and our computers merely simulate these. z = z^2 + c.
posted by adzm at 12:54 AM on April 12, 2005

This may be slightly off-topic, but Really Slick Screensavers lives up to its name. stare at these for a while then look at a blank white wall. whoa!
posted by adzm at 1:02 AM on April 12, 2005

I don't know what the cognitive science answer might be, but try looking into Kandinsky's The Spiritual In Art and Point and Line to Plane and Mondrian's Trialogue. They're great in explaining where some kinds of abstract art come from and they explore the question of interesting-ness from various angles.
posted by josh at 4:28 AM on April 12, 2005

From a CogSci standpoint, I would suggest it has to do with our love of patterns and decoding them. Especially when looking at a visual medium, we are accustomed to being able to identify and categorize what we see. When we see something that appears to follow a certain pattern but that pattern is complex, we look more closely. In the case of fractals etc we simply cannot grasp the entire pattern, sending us on some kind of low-level infinite loop.

Just a guess, I am not a qualified expert, YMMV, I reserve all rights, etc...
posted by sophist at 4:57 AM on April 12, 2005

Interesting. sophist's description of the CogSci standpoint closely echoes Kant's theory of the beautiful. We see some phenomenon that appears to be purposive, and yet our intellect can't quite bring this appearance of purposiveness under a definite concept. Example: You look at a flower, and it appears to be made for something ("something" used in the sense of a final end, not merely some functionality). Your intellect tries to discover the purpose (i.e., tries to bring it under a definite concept, because that's what the intellect does). It can't. So it kicks it back to your imagination, saying, in effect, "Are you sure you're representing this to me properly?" The imagination sizes things up again, and again represents it to the intellect, because that's what it does. A "free play" of these faculties ensues, in which they bounce the representation back and forth, trying to resolve it under a definite concept, and this free play he identifies with the pleasure of the beautiful.

And, by way of deflecting a derail here, Kant does not assume that there is a purpose in any of these cases, just that it's human nature to "see" purposiveness.
posted by bricoleur at 5:24 AM on April 12, 2005

i think it's finding the right balance between repetition and order. something has to have enough variation to not be "obvious" and enough regularity to remain "structured". i'm going to self-link because this is what worry about all the time with my art - it's especially difficult with computer generated works, i think, because finding a way to describe the required amount of order is not easy (it's trivial to make things completely random or completely ordered, but the mid point is much harder).

you might like this book which discusses fractals and the like and worries a lot about this middle ground between order and noise.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:21 AM on April 12, 2005

1. A state of curiosity or concern about or attention to something: an interest in sports.
posted by petebest at 8:02 AM on April 12, 2005

A great place to delve deeper into this topic is How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, famous neuroscience/cogsci professor @ MIT. Really, one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time.
posted by sophist at 12:56 PM on April 12, 2005

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