The answers came from my training as a biologist. As a matter of fact, I came up with four theories outlining the reasons for the visual appeal of bonsai. But first, I need to make a little disclaimer. Strictly speaking, my theories here are speculations. As a scientist, I view them as hypotheses, which ought to be tested. Some of my statements, though, may be supported by existing scientific literature, but the review of this literature is beyond the scope of this essay. Its aim is only to convey my ideas.
Theory One: Arboreal refugeHumans can quickly and accurately assess individual trees and favourably assessed trees are perceived by us as beautiful. Such assessments take us seconds, we do them subconsciously. It is simply our instinct. Modern humans don’t need to assess trees for their beauty, but we have this ability anyway. Why? I believe this ability is a leftover from our evolutionary past.
From around 85 million year ago till about 4 million years ago our distant ancestors lived on trees. During this long evolutionary period our ancestors’ ability to assess trees for their suitability as a refuge was ‘hardwired’ in their brains and became an instinct. Although, in the last 4 million years, our ancestors gradually discontinued their arboreal way of life and lost the need for this instinct, its remnants are still present in the workings of our mind. This leads to the question of what makes a tree beautiful? Well, I think the qualities which make us perceive trees as ‘beautiful’ are structural stability and complexity.
To illustrate my point about structural stability I made a diagram shown below and asked ten random work colleagues: “Which tree has the most pleasing shape?” Nine out of ten chose option ‘b’, which happens to be the most structurally stable tree of the lot. It would also make the best bonsai in my opinion.
While shapes ‘a’, ‘c’ and ‘d’ are less stable than ‘b’, shape ‘e’ is quite stable, yet test participants didn’t find it pleasing, and I know why. Shape ‘e’ is a shrub. Shrubs don’t get you out of a predator’s reach. At the same time, they provide predators with a hiding place to ambush you. In the past, our ancestors survived by being wary of shrubs and today we still prefer the looks of a tree to that of a shrub.
To clarify what I meant earlier by the complexity of a tree, I made another diagram, where the number of branches on a tree represents its complexity. The diagram is shown below. I asked the same ten colleagues the same question: “Which tree has the most pleasing shape?” Seven out of ten chose option ‘c’ and two people chose option ‘a’. The majority of people preferred trees with a more complex branch structure. If these trees were bonsai you would be foolish to choose anything but ‘c’.
Suddenly, all those rules for styling bonsai begin to take a new meaning. Features of bonsai such as buttress roots, thick trunk, trunk taper, golden ratio proportions, apex above the trunk base and balanced branching are characteristics of a stable structure. On the other hand, features such as dead branches, exposed wood, hollowed trunk, ruggedly textured bark, fruit, flowers, unusually coloured foliage and fine branching are characteristics which adorn bonsai with layers of complexity. When the trunk line of a bonsai is visible, we see all those characteristics clearly and it is easier for us to appreciate a bonsai. We strive to make our bonsai ‘beautiful’ and without realising it, create representations of arboreal refuges favored by our prehistoric ancestors. We like bonsai because they look like our primeval home.
Theory Two: Miracle of survivalThe arguments I made so far explain the appeal of structurally stable trees or what we classify in bonsai as upright styles, but what about other tree shapes? Here, I would like to explain the appeal of bonsai that portray trees struggling against the elements of nature. This category includes such bonsai styles as literati, cascade, wind-blown, struck-by-lightning, drift-wood, root-over-rock, raft and sometimes other styles.
A bizarre or improbable survival of a living thing often attracts our attention. We feel sympathy and compassion at witnessing survival against all odds. This is the emotion that compels us to protect nature. We marvel at an antelope’s escape from the lion’s claws and we wonder at a stunted tree clinging to a cliff face. Knowing the source of this emotion could explain the attraction held by bonsai implying such miraculous survival.
According to a widely acclaimed book titled “The Selfish Gene”, written by an evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the cause of such compassion towards other living things is our genetic relatedness to them. The more genes we share with another living organism the more compassionate we feel towards it. Genetically, we are most closely related to our parents, siblings and offspring and they are usually the ones we care about the most. We would care more about a pet dog than a pet fish, because we share more genes with a dog. I hear you asking: Are we really related to plants? The answer is yes. We share many genes with plants and all other living species on our planet, including bacteria. As we are only distantly related to plants our sympathy towards them is not very strong. Humans kill plants often enough, however we also protect rare species and grow plants for no practical use. Bonsai is one example of that.
Bonsai styles such as literati, cascade and a few others often represent somewhat extreme cases of survival, which evoke compassion more effectively. I should also note that my ‘miracle of survival’ and ‘arboreal refuge’ theories often work together. For example, a cascade bonsai with a thick trunk and balanced branches would create a stronger appeal. I hope you are beginning to see that the psychology of our perception of bonsai is quite complex and my next theory is going to add yet another layer of complexity.
Theory Three: Field of dreamsHere, I would like to explain the appeal of bonsai forests, rock plantings, saikei, bonkei, some suiseki and even certain types of Oriental gardens. All these art forms have one common denominator - they represent landscapes. Here we need to think beyond individual trees and ask ourselves a couple of questions. First: “Why do we enjoy looking at landscapes in general?” and second: “What landscape features hold stronger appeal to us and why?”
To answer these questions I used the power of Google to do a little survey. I entered search criterion ‘beautiful landscape’ in Google Images and examined the top one hundred results. The landscape images were very diverse and depicted deserts, sea, mountains, forests, cities and more. First, I tried to find something that was present in each and every one of those one hundred landscapes. It became immediately obvious that it wasn’t any particular physical feature of the landscape. The only common attribute they all shared was the abundance of open space. In 94% of the landscapes the viewer could see further than one kilometer and 91% of them featured a distant horizon.
This indicates that open space is highly pleasing to human eye. The ability to see danger from afar was essential to our survival, so was the ability to see the choices for food and shelter. On the subconscious level, we feel safer when our line of sight is uninterrupted, but our conscious mind tells us that we see beautiful surroundings. One example that supports this theory is a seascape. The sea is not our habitat, but we love looking at it, just because our line of sight is uninterrupted. Another example is looking at a cityscape from a tall building. The landscape we see is completely artificial, yet it is pleasing to us because our line of sight is uninterrupted again.
The answer to my first question about landscapes is quite simple. We enjoy looking at vast expanses of open space, because we can see what’s out there, and it makes us feel safe. We like bonsai representing landscapes because they imply distance and open space. Such bonsai evoke subconscious emotions of safety, which are rationalised by our conscious mind as beauty.
Now, let’s examine specific landscape features to assess their appeal to us. We must keep in mind that a large stretch of open space is the most desirable landscape trait and no other feature can beat that 100 out of 100 score. I used the same one hundred images to score other landscape attributes. I counted how many images out of hundred contained a particular attribute. These counts are also percentages and they are shown in the table below.
The list of attributes that scored over fifty percent was surprisingly small. The percentages also prioritised the importance of these landscape attribute. The diagram below is a generalized representation an average landscape containing trees, grassland, water, mountains and lots of open space. Many images in that top one hundred looked similar to this.
Trees and grassland were the most desirable landscape attributes. They are also the only two components you need to create your basic bonsai forest. In fact, even single tree bonsai often suggest a lone tree on a hill or in a meadow. In a formal bonsai display such a suggestion is aided by the use of grasses as accent plants. From the scientific point of view, the importance of trees and grassland makes perfect sense. Humans, as a species, evolved in ecosystems which were a mixture of forest and grassland. When we see a combination of forest and grassland our instincts tell us that we are in the right place. These two habitats can provide us with a variety of food and shelter we need for survival.
The third most important landscape attribute was water and its importance is self-understood. However, the importance of mountains needs an explanation. I have talked at length about the uninterrupted line of sight. Well, very often you have to be on top of a mountain to have it. Hills and mountains provided early humans with vantage points necessary for hunting, gathering and security.
Mountains are also a source of a different kind of appeal. What do you think was the best shelter a prehistoric human could wish for? It was a cave, and caves are found in mountains. Think of our modern brick houses. They are nothing but artificial caves. Humans stopped using caves in prehistory because they learned how to custom-make them from a variety of materials. In fact, this was one of the key inventions which allowed humans to multiply and spread to less favourable environments.
I hope you are beginning to understand why bonsai suggesting open space, trees, grass, water and rock are so appealing to us. They tap into our instincts and our mind embraces these elements as something attractive. In reality though, we enjoy looking at such bonsai because they portray places promising survival.
Theory Four: Tree in disguiseAfter providing a few different explanations for the visual appeal of bonsai, I could still see one more. It concerns the category of bonsai whose shape suggests something other than a tree. This category includes trees like the ‘welcome pine’ reminding us of a person with an open arm. It also includes trees which look like dragons, Chinese language characters and sometimes other objects.
Appreciation of such bonsai requires not instinct, but conscious and abstract thought. In the case of the ‘welcome pine’ we have to create an abstract idea of a particular shape through observing and analysing shapes of real life objects such as a person with an open arm, a specific famous tree in China and a bonsai tree resembling both. We like looking at the ‘welcome pine’ bonsai because making connections between these seemingly unrelated objects is enjoyable to us. To understand why we enjoy it, think of a prehistoric human capable of recognising a predator camouflaged as foliage or a prey camouflaged as a rock. Making such connections could be a matter of life and death to our distant ancestors. In our evolutionary past natural selection favoured individuals with better abilities for abstract thinking and our brain evolved to reward it with positive emotions. Such evolutionary adaptation allowed our species to discover and innovate, which in turn immensely increased our chances of survival.
Today, we enjoy solving puzzles even when there are no immediate rewards associated with them. Problem solving triggers positive emotions in our brain and recognising that a bonsai tree looks like something else makes us feel happy.
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I have tried my best to explain why people enjoy looking at bonsai, but how can my theories help an average bonsai practitioner? I believe that bonsai traits identified in my theories can be used as a series of guidelines for creating, displaying and judging bonsai. Whenever you look at a bonsai and feel that something is missing - check it against the following criteria:
- Does it convey a sense of stability?
- Does it combine multiple points of interest to depict sufficient complexity?
- Does it portray a struggle against nature?
- Does it suggest an open landscape, perhaps with water or rocks?
- Does its shape allude to anything other than a tree?
These criteria are very well known to the bonsai community, but now you have possible explanations for how they interact with your mind and why it is important to incorporate them into your bonsai design.