TED Conversations

Saidi Ngutu

Water, Sanitation and Environmental Engineer, Netwas International

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Why are man-made creations so symmetrical?

Why is this world so symmetrical, have you ever thought about it? Nature and all man-made things have to be symmetrical. Did 'God' have an obsession with symmetry which has translated to everything we create? Is it because our minds, symmetrical in nature, can only understand objects in symmetry?

This idea has troubled and puzzles me everywhere I turn. As i write this, my laptop, my phone the plate next to me, the bottle of coke on my table all this objects are so symmetrical yet each unique in its own way serving a different purpose. Maybe something beyond us created this universe of things so symmetrical that's why we are obsessed with perfection, thrive in order, and relate to the normal of symmetry.

I am quite new at TED and was wondering if anyone has ever explored this peculiar existence that cuts through nature and the man-made objects.

Topics: philosophy

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  • Oct 18 2012: In the strictest sense of symmetry, the only things which are truly symmetrical are mathematical abstractions. Real objects are made of molecules which are constantly undergoing changes in bond orientation, so the next question becomes why are we convinced of symmetry in real objects as a phenomenon.

    A common theme in psychology is that our brain employs shortcuts (heuristics) to solve problems. One of the problems that our brain has is how to represent a three dimensional reality out of sounds, light, and proprioception (the ability to sense where your body parts are without looking at them). Visual data is especially important in reaching judgments in discriminating between objects or in analyzing the features of an object, but our brain can only process a very small point of the entire visual field at any given moment, so the eyes are constantly darting here and there taking in little bits while the brain generates the perception of a whole/intact outside world.

    Perfect geometrical objects have fewer irregularities that the brain needs to process in order to form a theoretical object, so it seems plausible to me that the human tendency to create pseudo-symmetry is related to how it allows an object whose goal is aesthetic or functional to fade into the mental background more quickly than something irregularly shaped. Checking my intuitions it seems that I would notice a fallen tree in the forest more quickly than I would notice an intact tree amongst many. This can be tested, of course.

    In summary, the perception of symmetry might be an illusion derived from the brains tendency to create shortcuts and the visual simplicity of regular geometric solids results in their being less attention grabbing.
    • Oct 21 2012: I agree with your thoughts, but I'm afraid it simply begs the question. Yes, things in the universe are not really symmetrical. However, they very often are approximately symmetrical. A circle exhibits perfect symmetry, but a sinkhole does not. However, a great many sinkholes are approximately circular, so though not symmetrical, they approach symmetry fairly closely. This brings back the original author's question, why? Why should so many sinkholes be nearly circular? Why are so many animals more or less symmetrical? Why doesn't a dolphin have a wide, flat left side and a narrow, rounded right side? I don't know the answer, but I think it's a great question!

      Here's another question that may be closely related: why do so many natural objects display Fibonacci sequences? Though not symmetrical, they represent highly structured and often repeated patterns that occur for no reason that is obvious to a casual observer. Why does nature like them so much?
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        Oct 21 2012: In terms of Fibonacci, that the number of some attribute would be the sum of the two previous layers seems reasonable rather than bizarre.

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