Aesthetic Experience and Neuroaesthetics

Aesthetics is a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art. Aesthetic experiences, such as looking at paintings, listening to music or reading poems, are linked to the perception of external objects, but not to any apparent functional use the objects might have. Aesthetic experience involves more than preference, encompassing a variety of emotional responses ranging from beauty to awe, sublimity, and a variety of other (often knowledge-based) emotions.

What makes us so drawn to certain artistic creations, so influenced and moved by them?

Neuroaesthetics is a multi-disciplinary field aimed at understanding the neural basis of aesthetic experience and behavior. This includes interactions with art-objects as well as aesthetic modes of interaction with non-art objects, such as faces, natural objects, and scenes.

In recent years, we have learned a considerable amount from brain imaging studies about the neural correlates of aesthetic experience and how they relate to sensory, reward, and emotion neural processes.

Great art is, almost by definition, universal: the wide appeal it commands comes from a connection with fundamental aspects of human nature and human cognition. Yet, at its best, art in any of its forms—visual art, music, literature, etc.—can feel strikingly personal. Intense aesthetic experience often carries with it a sense of intimacy, “belonging,” and closeness with the artwork.

There is a “resonance” between certain artworks and observers’ sense of self that occurs during intense aesthetic experience. It is a bidirectional relationship – not only does the perceiver feel as if they understand the artwork, but there is a sense that the artwork “understands” the perceiver, expressing one’s own innermost thoughts, feelings, or values.

Aesthetic experiences are focused on a sense of understanding, gained insight and meaning.

The extraction of meaning has been suggested as a primary factor of aesthetic experience. But, while an appeal to self-related information is but one way in which viewers extract meaning from artwork, the latest neuroaesthic research suggests that, in fact, self-relevance is an integral aspect of intensely moving aesthetic experience.

In a task of rating images of artworks in a brain scanner (fMRI), regions in the brain (medial prefrontal cortex) were positively activated on the highest-rated tests. The research found that our taste in art is linked to our sense of identity and suggests that it serve to signal “self-relevance” in a broader sense than has been thought so far.

Vessel, Edward A; Starr, G. Gabrielle; and Rubin, Nava. Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. Front. Neurosci. 30 December 2013.