Human preferences for symmetry: subjective experience, cognitive conflict and cortical brain activity

PLoS One. 2012;7(6):e38966. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038966. Epub 2012 Jun 13.


This study examines the links between human perceptions, cognitive biases and neural processing of symmetrical stimuli. While preferences for symmetry have largely been examined in the context of disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism spectrum disorders, we examine various these phenomena in non-clinical subjects and suggest that such preferences are distributed throughout the typical population as part of our cognitive and neural architecture. In Experiment 1, 82 young adults reported on the frequency of their obsessive-compulsive spectrum behaviors. Subjects also performed an emotional Stroop or variant of an Implicit Association Task (the OC-CIT) developed to assess cognitive biases for symmetry. Data not only reveal that subjects evidence a cognitive conflict when asked to match images of positive affect with asymmetrical stimuli, and disgust with symmetry, but also that their slowed reaction times when asked to do so were predicted by reports of OC behavior, particularly checking behavior. In Experiment 2, 26 participants were administered an oddball Event-Related Potential task specifically designed to assess sensitivity to symmetry as well as the OC-CIT. These data revealed that reaction times on the OC-CIT were strongly predicted by frontal electrode sites indicating faster processing of an asymmetrical stimulus (unparallel lines) relative to a symmetrical stimulus (parallel lines). The results point to an overall cognitive bias linking disgust with asymmetry and suggest that such cognitive biases are reflected in neural responses to symmetrical/asymmetrical stimuli.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / physiopathology
  • Cognition*
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / physiopathology
  • Visual Perception*