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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 05-Oct-14


Sunday 05-October-14

Feng Shui, curves and good-enough explanations

Feng Shui is an interesting Chinese philosophy about arranging rooms, buildings and even your life. It falls into what some call 'woo-woo', non-scientific nonsense or just the realm of the mysterious. Science has little time for such systems, although both assume invisible forces within the universe. And what if there was something to it? It can be a trap to dismiss out of hand things that have sustained attention and adherents for many years. The question is 'what is really happening here?'. The system itself uses all kinds of mysterious terminology and non-scientific ideas such as 'chi' or 'life force'. Yet what if this was an ancient way of describing the experience of something that exists. The principle of science is to make up explanations for things that happen and then keep them for as long as the explanation works and until a better explanation appears.

One of the ideas of Feng Shui is that curves are better than angles. And it is generally true. If you walk into a house or room with plenty of curves, it kind of feels nice. Researchers Dazkir and Read showed this when they asked over a hundred subjects to rate computer-generated rooms in terms of how comfortable the room made them feel (pleasure) and whether they would like to spend more time there (approach). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they very largely preferred the curved furniture.

But why? Was it the mystery of Feng Shui as the curves facilitated the flow of chi around the room? Or was it something more mundane.

Sadly, it seems that there is a simple explanation for this. When we look at any object, we know it is a 'thing' because we trace the outline of it before fitting the shape to an internal library of objects. In doing this, our eyes detect lines through contrasted edges and then follow the lines to complete the shape. Following lines is a bit like driving a car. The easiest drive is straight lines. But when we come to corners, if the bend is sharp, then we have to brake heavily, slow right down and ensure we keep on the road. But if the bend is curved, the drive is much easier. Not only this, but curves also add interest as they reveal new possibilities, breaking the boredom of a long straight road. Overall, then, our eyes like curves.

There are many other phenomena like this, where the explanations that people give help them make sense of their feelings, even though the explanations are wrong. A wrong explanation is, after all, more comfortable than no explanation. In this way, we rationalize much of what we experience, not because we are correct but because we have a deep need to explain.

Dazkir, S. and Read, M. (2012). Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments. Environment and Behavior, 44, 5, 722-732

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