Aesthetic Appeal May Have Neurological Link to Contemplation and Self-Assessment


A network of brain regions that is activated during intense aesthetic experience overlaps with the brain network associated with inward contemplation and self-assessment, NYU researchers have found. Their study, gauging neurological responses to a series of paintings, sheds new light on the nature of the aesthetic experience, which appears to integrate sensory and emotional reactions in a manner linked with their personal relevance.

“Aesthetic judgments for paintings are highly individual, in that the paintings experienced as moving differ widely across people,” the researchers observe. “But the neural systems supporting aesthetic reactions remain largely the same from person to person. Moreover, the most moving paintings produce a selective activation of a network of brain regions which is known to activate when we think about personally relevant matters such as our own personality traits and daydreams, or when we contemplate our future.”

The study’s co-authors were Edward Vessel, a researcher in NYU’s Center for Brain Imaging; Gabrielle Starr, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of English; and Nava Rubin, an associate professor in NYU’s Center for Neural Science. It appeared in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Previous neuroimaging studies have begun to pinpoint why certain aesthetics appeal to certain individuals by identifying several brain regions whose activation correlates with a variety of aesthetic experiences. The NYU researchers sought to more closely examine the intensity and diversity of aesthetic responses toward works of art.

To do so, the study’s subjects, who ranged from those with novice-level experience of art and art history to several having completed some undergraduate study in the history of art, examined 109 images from the Catalog of Art Museum Images Online database. These works of art came from a variety of cultural traditions (American, European, Indian, and Japanese) and several historical periods (from the 15th century to the recent past). Images were representational and abstract, and included several classifications (e.g., female, male figure, a mixed group, still life, landscape, or abstract). In order to minimize recognition, which could yield responses based on a piece’s notoriety rather than on its appeal, commonly reproduced images were not used—in fact, most of the study’s subjects did not recognize any image.

While subjects varied in which paintings received the highest ratings, the brains of all subjects showed a significant increase in activity in a specific network of frontal and subcortical regions in response to artworks they reported as highly moving. This activity included several regions belonging to the brain’s “default mode network,” which had previously been associated with self-referential mentation.

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