From Shapes to Stories

In 1944, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel produced a simple film. The animated short features a large rectangle, a small circle, and two triangles—one large and one small. The shapes move about the screen for a minute before the film fades to black. Throughout the video, there is no audio, text, color, or other features. As for design aesthetic, the film goes beyond minimalism. It is frugality.

But in this frugality, stories arise. While the lack of concrete detail could render the film to nothing but a handful of shapes floating around a screen, viewers manage to derive meaning. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Despite the absence of normal elements—people, animals, and places—stories can still be created. The hardiness of our storytelling ability is akin to cockroaches surviving nuclear detonation: Generation without “sufficient” nutrients. This demonstrates a uniquely human disposition. No other creatures seek for meaning so desperately that they build narratives from moving shapes. Is our thirst for meaning so strong that it is never fully quenched? At what point can we see triangles as triangles and nothing more?

Heider and Simmel designed the video for a study about the activation of anthropomorphic descriptions when we see geometric shapes. Basically, they were seeking to understand why we attribute human features to nonhuman things. Personification of the world has been a large part of human history. Myths and legends have given faces to oceans and voices to winds on a quest to understand our place in the world. When encountered with the unknown, this anthropomorphizing nature is a coping mechanism. We seek to fill the holes in a situation and craft a story so that we can understand why something is happening. We paint the void with our minds, and it allows us to make sense of things. This is why we experience emotions when seeing a painting, listening to music, or watching animals interact with one another. When we cannot understand the context of the situation, we create one. Even with things as simple as circles and squares.

It is for this reason that we find television and films enjoyable. They cause us to react emotionally, despite the fact that they are abstract representations. Granted, modern technology has enabled higher graphics and sound, narrowing the gap between the concrete and abstract. Heider and Simmel’s film suggests that anthropomorphism needs little input.

Some say our anthropomorphism is dangerous, as it distorts reality. But I say it makes us human.

And, well, we couldn’t have art without it.

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