Repetition Repetition Repetition
Gerda Smets did an experiment – the summary that follows is from E. O. Wilson’s In Search of Nature — where she “measured the degree of physiological arousal in adults caused by geometric designs of various degrees of complexity. The measure she used was alpha wave blockage, generally interpreted to be an index of arousal even when unaccompanied by conscious awareness. A sharp peak of maximum response was obtained with computer-generated figures at 20 percent redundancy, the amount found, for example, in a maze with between 10 and 20 angles. Less redundancy and more redundancy were far less stimulating. It does not seem coincidental that 20 percent is approximately the amount of complexity in logotypes, ideographs, frieze design, grille work, and other designs chosen for instant recognition and aesthetic pleasure. In other words, the development of art and written language may be strongly influenced by an innate constraint in cognition…”
In Consilience, Wilson adds that Smets’s high-arousal figures “are also close in order and complexity to the pictographs of written Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Tamil, Bengali, and other Asian languages of diverse origin, as well as the glyphs of the ancient Egyptians and Mayans. Finally, it seems likely that some of the most esteemed products of modern abstract art fall near the same optimal level of order, as illustrated in Mondrian’s oeuvre. Although this connection of neurobiology to the arts is tenuous, it offers a promising cue to the aesthetic instinct, one that has not to my knowledge been explored systematically by either scientists or interpreters of the arts.”
How much of the beauty and coherence of a literary style is due to subtly repetitive patterns of syntax and vocabulary? Is this something that could ever be quantified?
I think of the many repetitions of the word “shingle” in Iain McEwan’s On Chesil Beach — the word first appears in the assonant phrase “infinite shingle,” evoking a pattern of recurrence that extends far beyond the confines of the text… A shingle beach is itself a monument to Nature’s inexorable sorting of objects into patterns, patterns we may be innately constrained to admire…