The Arts and The Brain: Psychology and Physiology Beyond Pleasure

arts and the brain

A whole new volume of Progress in Brain Research, edited by Julia F. Christensen & Antoni Gomila, devoted to the psychology and neuroscience of art:

Progress in Brain Research Volume 237, Pages 2-484 (2018)

The volume includes 22 chapters written by an amazing line-up of contributors:

The Arts, Brain and Evolution
1. Art, Symbolism and the Evolution of the Brain
2. Emergence of early art and the evolution of human culture
3. On the interaction between cultural and biological evolutionary processes in generating artistic creativity

The Arts and Psychology
4. The nature of aesthetic experience of art
5. Art appreciation as an emotional process – beyond aesthetic experience
6. The Singular Experience: Characterizing the Emotional Response to Art Beyond Pleasure
7. An empirical paper on audience responses to film

The Arts and Physiology
8. Why we like what we like? Tracking the neurophysiological responses linked to aesthetic appreciation
9. The arts as a multisensory experience
10. Interceptive predictions and aesthetic relatedness to images
11. How artists represent visual processes

The Arts and the Brain
12. Art and Brain, and integrative overview
13. Seeking Salience in Engaging Art: A Short Story about Attention, Artistic Value, and Affective Neuroscience
14. New insights from the neuroscience of dance
15. Embodied aesthetics in the visual and the performing arts

The Arts and Biology
16. Music, dance and other art forms: new insights into the links between hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (well-being)
17. A systematic review of the biological impact of music
18. Biology and aesthetics in music and the visual arts
19. Alexithymia, arts and health

Arts Expertise and learning
20. Developmental perspectives on the social and emotional role of music and dance
21. Music Education and the Brain
22. Dance learning among adolescents and young adults: Insights from brain imaging and behaviour
23. Is there a moral bettering through the arts?


See a preview of the book here!

The Arts and the Brain: Psychology and Physiology beyond Pleasure, Volume 237, combines the work of an excellent group of experts who explain evidence on the neural and biobehavioral science of the arts. Topics covered include the emergence of early art and the evolution of human culture, the interaction between cultural and biological evolutionary processes in generating artistic creation, the nature of the aesthetic experience of art, the arts as a multisensory experience, new insights from the neuroscience of dance, a systematic review of the biological impact of music, and more.


Are human visual preferences older than humans themselves?

Our most recent paper shows that we (Homo sapiens) share our preference for curved contours with our closest living primate relatives: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). This suggests that such preference is not a unique evolutionary acquisition of our species. It seems, rather, that we inherited it from earlier primate ancestors – at least the common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, which lived in Africa some 7 or 8 million years ago.

The implication is that some of the building blocks of aesthetic appreciation – visual preference, in this case – might have a long evolutionary history in the primate lineage, predating the appearance of our own species by millions of years. Whatever the details of the origin of aesthetic appreciation, it seems it was the result of tweaking and integrating perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes common to many extant and extinct primate species.



Among the visual preferences that guide many everyday activities and decisions, from consumer choices to social judgment, preference for curved over sharp-angled contours is commonly thought to have played an adaptive role throughout human evolution, favoring the avoidance of potentially harmful objects. However, because nonhuman primates also exhibit preferences for certain visual qualities, it is conceivable that humans’ preference for curved contours is grounded on perceptual and cognitive mechanisms shared with extant nonhuman primate species. Here we aimed to determine whether nonhuman great apes and humans share a visual preference for curved over sharp-angled contours using a 2-alternative forced choice experimental paradigm under comparable conditions. Our results revealed that the human group and the great ape group indeed share a common preference for curved over sharp-angled contours, but that they differ in the manner and magnitude with which this preference is expressed behaviorally. These results suggest that humans’ visual preference for curved objects evolved from earlier primate species’ visual preferences, and that during this process it became stronger, but also more susceptible to the influence of higher cognitive processes and preference for other visual features.

Munar, E., Gómez-Puerto, G., Call, J., & Nadal, M. (2015). Common visual preference for curved contours in humans and great apesPLoS One, 10(11): e0141106

The neuroaesthetics of prose fiction, by Michael Burke

Burke, M. (2015). The neuroaesthetics of prose fiction: pitfalls, parameters and prospects. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9: 442. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00442


There is a paucity of neuroaesthetic studies on prose fiction. This is in contrast to the very many impressive studies that have been conducted in recent times on the neuroaesthetics of sister arts such as painting, music and dance. Why might this be the case, what are its causes and, of greatest importance, how can it best be resolved? In this article, the pitfalls, parameters and prospects of a neuroaesthetics of prose fiction will be explored. The article itself is part critical review, part methodological proposal and part opinion paper. Its aim is simple: to stimulate, excite and energize thinking in the discipline as to how prose fiction might be fully integrated in the canon of neuroaesthetics and to point to opportunities where neuroimaging studies on literary discourse processing might be conducted in collaborative work bringing humanists and scientists together.

Get the whole paper here!