Neuroaesthetics

Neuroaesthetics is a new field of research emerging at the intersection of psychological aesthetics, neuroscience and human evolution. The main objective of neuroaesthetics is to characterize the neurobiological foundations and evolutionary history of the cognitive and affective processes involved in aesthetic experiences and artistic and other creative activities.

Although there have been attempts to determine the neural mechanisms of aesthetic experiences since the eighteenth century, contemporary neuroaesthetics was set into motion at the end of the 20th century by Semir Zeki and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran’s influential theoretical perspectives on visual neuroaesthetics. Since then the field has grown, matured and diversified. This expansion owes to the work performed using several different methods to study our reactions to diverse artistic and nonartistic media.

It is a fact that all humans like, prefer, or find beauty in some form of visual representation, music, dance, literature, theater, landscape, and so on. As the breadth of neuroaesthetics grew, researchers attempted to ascertain the biological mechanisms that allow people to engage aesthetically with painting, designs, consumer products, architecture, dance, music, odors, and other people’s faces. Results from this research suggest that both common and distinct biological mechanisms are involved in our enjoyment of different media.

Some researchers have continued Zeki and Ramachandran’s theoretical approach, pointing out how artists throughout the ages and across the globe have devised techniques and resources that catch our attention, interest us, and appeal to us because they engage certain neural processes related with rewarding sensations. Others have explored the impact of brain damage and neural degeneration on the production and appreciation of art and on aesthetic experiences. This line of research has revealed that such activities and experiences are not related with a single brain region or hemisphere. They emerge from the interaction of activity taking place in many different brain regions.

The use of neuroimaging methods in neuroaesthetics has allowed to put some of those theoretical proposals to test, and to study the role of different neural processes in aesthetic experiences in many healthy participants, thus overcoming some of the limitations of the two aforementioned approaches. Techniques such as fMRI or MEG allow researchers to infer neural activity in specific brain regions while participants perform certain tasks. When applied in neuroaesthetics, such tasks have usually involved participants judging the beauty of stimuli presented to them, or stating how much they like them or prefer them. This approach has revealed that aesthetic experiences involve brain processes related with perception, memory, understanding, attention, emotion and pleasure.

Finally, neuroaesthetics is also interested in the evolutionary history of the neural underpinnings of aesthetic experiences. Researchers have striven to ascertain the selective pressures and adaptive advantages that have endowed our species with the capacity for aesthetic experiences. The most popular perspectives suggest that the origin of such experiences lies in the recognition of biological fitness indicators in the physical appearance of potential mates or, alternatively, in the identification of resources and threats in environments to guide settlement and migration.