When we say that a user experience (UX) has “visceral appeal”, we mean that it elicits an immediate “I like it” response. A visceral response is an emotional reaction that involves little or no active thought. It is often called a “gut feeling,” and it can be either positive or negative.
According to Merriam-webster.com, visceral is defined as:
1. felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body: deep
2. not intellectual: instinctive, unreasoning
3. dealing with crude or elemental emotions: earthy
4. of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera <visceral organs>
Viscera is the plural of viscus, which is defined as:
an internal organ of the body; especially: one (as the heart, liver, or intestine) located in the large cavity of the trunk.
How do emotions get from our visual (or touch, taste, smell or hearing) sense, to having a feeling in our gut?
The central nervous system consists of two parts: the brain and its extended spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system. This peripheral system includes sensory neurons that respond to sensory input such as light, heat, pain and sound. It also includes motor neurons that cause muscle contraction or gland secretion in response to a signal from the central nervous system. A third type of interneuron passes messages between sensory and motor neurons.
Part of this peripheral nervous system called the automatic nervous system, controls the internal organs, such as regulating the heart muscle and the smooth muscle of the intestine, bladder and uterus. The automatic nervous system can both promote rapid changes, such as increasing heart rate when danger is near and can slow down changes to keep the body in a healthy balance. (1)
Evolution has equipped us with this fast acting survival mechanism where sensory input stimulates an emotional response that we feel as changes to our heart rate, adrenalin levels and muscle tension. Depending on the type of input, we might spring into action and flee from a lion coming to eat us or relax and enjoy a swim in a quiet stream. By responding appropriately to pain or impending attack on the one hand or nurturing and pleasure on the other hand, we are clearly increasing our chances of survival.
What is happening in the nervous system as we act on sensory inputs is complex and not easy to fully understand. Visceral responses are often considered innate or instinctive. When we feel pain by touching fire, we try to stop the pain by pulling our hand away from it without any need to contemplate, do we want to move our hand or how do we move it. The negative input, the respective negative feeling and the appropriate action of pulling away appear to us, to happen with little or no conscious thought; we experience it more physically than mentally.
One can imagine the kinds of sensory inputs that would likely illicit an innate negative visceral response such as bitter tastes, rotting smells, blood, misshapen bodies, vomit, extreme hot or cold, extreme heights, grating or discordant sounds and visual chaos. Similarly, one can imagine the kinds of sensory inputs that would likely illicit an innate positive visceral response such as sweet tastes and smells, harmonious sounds, rhythmic beats, symmetrical objects, smiling faces and temperate temperatures. (2)
In these more extreme examples it’s possible for most people to recall reacting in a way that could be described as instinctive, however, most of our everyday experiences include a visceral component (see a face and find it appealing) and reactions based on personal taste and past experiences. Visceral reactions, although described as primitive and earthy, are likely the barometer by which we judge everything at first glance and what drives much of our decision-making. I’ll discuss how this applies more directly to UX design aesthetics in Part 3 of this series.
Faith Hickman Brynie, Brain Sense: The Science of the Senses and How We Process the World Around Us ( New York: AMCOM, 2009) 231-232.
Donald A. Norman, Emotional Design,(New York: Basic Books, 2004)29-30