In 1970, psychologist Richard L. Gregory hypothesized that the human brain uses “top-down processing” to generate what we perceive via our eyes. The theory argued that our backlog of visual experiences give shape to the images we perceive. By the 1990s, experiments had robustly backed up this theory, and psychologists now widely accept that what we see and what we perceive are quite different. Sometimes shockingly so.
I’ve come to realize that if I switch from a large to a small watch (or vice-versa), I initially perceive the newly donned watch as “wrong.” This judgement arises because my brain processes what I see through an expectation (or mental image) of correct watch size. If I switch back to the other size, then my brain will again recalibrate. For me, these recalibration intervals range from as short as an hour to a few days.
Three salient points to consider: 1) during recalibration I am uncomfortable with the watch; 2) my perception of watch size is wildly inconsistent; and 3) I’m not really in control of the judgements I make regarding watch size.
Despite this budding self-awareness, I cling to the notion that my preferences for watch size result from my good taste and free-will.
Assuming the watch isn’t absurdly big or small, however, I’ve begun to accept that my brain runs mental programs that shape how I perceive and judge a watch’s size, and these mental programs are neither fully conscious, self-determined, nor stable over time. This conclusion contradicts just about everything I’ve ever believed about the nature of taste: namely, that taste is a self-derived and stable aesthetic stance. By considering how our brains process watch size, I believe we can gain some insight into the nature of aesthetic taste.
I submit that there are three main experiences that build up our mental expectations of watch size: 1) looking at watches on our own wrist, 2) looking at watches on other people’s wrists, and 3) associating watch size with gender.
Watches We Wear
The watches we personally wear are the most direct and tangible vehicles for building up our perceptual expectations; they’re real things in our lives, and their impact on our expectations should be obvious.
Watches Other People Wear
When it comes to seeing watches on other people’s wrists, however, social media has come to dominate. How many wrist shots do I devour in a day? Many hundreds, easily. One would expect that we would see a vast diversity of watch sizes via social media, and we do. However, algorithms are capable of narrowing our exposure to a diversity of watch sizes (just as social media isolates our exposure to opposing political views). This is the so-called echo chamber effect of social media.
Surely we don’t elect to isolate our exposure to like-minded folks. Rather, increasingly sophisticated algorithms show us more of what the algos deem to be our preferences. Zoom in on and like a wristshot of a tasteful 36mm Patek, and the algos will show you more of that account’s images as well as images with the same hashtags. Pass quickly over a massive Urwerk wristshot, and the algos will attenuate exposure to that account and the associated hashtags. There is no complete filter, of course, but the algos are always working to pigeon hole us as narrowly as possible, thus effectively targeting us for tailor-made ads.
Watch Size & Gender
Meanwhile, culturally, watches are splayed out across a gender continuum, with larger watches toward the masculine end and smaller ones toward the feminine end. As an example, the Cartier Tank with which I’m currently obsessed is a decidedly fey and feminine watch by today’s standards of masculinity, while something like the aforementioned Urwerk behemoths align more readily with full-blown machismo. The association of watch size with gender is a cultural phenomenon, so it is fluid over time, varies across cultures, and – like all cultural phenomena – is nearly impossible to explain. Nonetheless, cultural biases that associate watch size with gender certainly color our perceptions, and these biases appear to operate instantaneously and largely against our will.
So What Is Aesthetic Taste?
All of this begs the question: How much control over our taste do we really have?
taste: (n) the ability to discern what is of good quality or of a high aesthetic standard
My first Cartier Tank arrived recently, and it is tiny. After wearing this lovely watch for an afternoon, I found that my 40mm dive watches, my 38.5mm Grand Seiko, and even my 36mm Datejust seemed cartoonishly large. Even stranger, for nearly an hour I didn’t like any of these mid-sized watches very much. After a while, however, I recalibrated and my divers and such again seemed normal. I’ve continued to experiment with these swings, and the phenomenon is reliably repeatable. However, these wild swings are not, I’ve concluded, actually changes in my taste; instead, these swings occur during recalibration intervals during which the inherent discomfort of my expectations not being met finds me not liking watches that I know I fully approve of and love.
If these swings in what I perceive as aesthetically right and wrong aren’t really shifts in my taste, then what exactly is swinging and, relatedly, what constitutes my taste?
Using Gregory’s theory of top-down processing of visual stimulus, it seems fair to argue that our taste for visual things (watches among them) is a complex grouping of various mental expectations – some more stable than others. When we look at a watch, any number of expectations come into play – among them expectations of color, shininess, geometrical proportions, a bevvy of cultural biases (especially gender), and, of course, size. When we break taste into these component expectations, it appears that our taste – which we broadly consider to be self-derived and relatively stable – may shift under external forces far more than we realize or would like to admit.
So perhaps we can account for taste after all – at least to some degree. Perhaps the wild ride of social media is revealing just how impressionable and pliant we truly are, how forces outside our control shape the various component expectations that we tend to lump together and refer to as taste. Perhaps with improved brain imaging technology and further experiment, we will come to better understand the nature of taste. Until that happens, I’m sticking with the notion that our taste is, ultimately, a black box into which we’ve only begun to shine a light.