There is no simple explanation for why we enjoy a piece of music, why we like looking at a painting, or why some people love watching the sun setting over the ocean. Aesthetic experiences arise from the interaction of many psychological processes, this much we do know. Some of these processes have to do with the way we perceive the world, with how we process sounds, colors and shapes. Others have to do with memory: a song reminds us of a special occasion, a painting’s style is familiar to us or we think we saw it in some museum. Scientists have made considerable progress in showing how these processes work and how they are performed by specific neural mechanisms.
Aesthetic experiences, however, are also grounded on affective processes. People might feel good or bad while looking at a painting or listening to music. They might even be overcome by specific emotions, such as happiness or sorrow. We are only beginning to understand the different roles affect and emotion play in aesthetic appreciation. Work in the last 5 years has taught us that a highly complex network of brain regions underlies our experience of pleasure, anticipation or chills – among others – evoked by music, beautiful landscapes, art or images we are led to believe are art, and even consumer products labelled with expensive brand names.
Our responses to art, design, landscapes, are not passive, however. We are all active agents of our aesthetic experiences. Everyone contributes a unique combination of experience, knowledge, personality and mood to their encounter with the object of aesthetic experience. This is why different people choose different kinds of books, movies and music. This is why each of us prefer different stuff at different moments, or at different stages in our life.
A recent study (Hunter et al., 2011) sought to advance our understanding of the affective processes involved in aesthetic experience precisely by examining how the interaction between a stimulus feature – the emotional valence of musical fragments – and a personal state – people’s mood – affected liking for music.
Their materials were taken from a pool of 30-second music excerpts selected on the grounds of their tempo and mode, the strongest musical cues to emotion. For their first experiment they selected three fragments with a high tempo and in major mode (which had previously received high happiness ratings) and three with a slow tempo and in minor mode (receiving high sadness ratings). Before listening to the fragments, participants performed a mood-induction task. First they saw a series of pictures showing happy, neutral, and sad scenes, and were asked about their feelings. They were then asked to choose one of the pictures and write some sentences about their feelings towards it. Thus, in some cases, music and mood were congruent (both were sad or both were happy), and in others music and mood were incongruent (one was sad and the other happy). After listening to each fragment participants were asked to rate how much they liked it.
The results showed that when they were in a happy or neutral mood, participants clearly preferred happy music over sad music. Liking scores for sad excerpts increased, however, when participants were in a sad mood, such that in this condition there were no differences between scores for happy and sad music.
In their second experiment they used six music fragments evoking mixed feelings of happiness and sadness because of the conflicting cues: slow tempo and major mode or high tempo and minor mode. Here participants underwent the same mood induction-procedure and were also asked to rate how much they liked each fragment. The results of this experiment revealed higher liking scores when people were in a happy mood than when they were in a sad mood. The fact that participants awarded higher sadness scores to these ambiguous fragments when they were in a sad mood suggests that they were attending primarily to the sad cue (slow tempo or minor mode). Conversely, after the happy or neutral mood induction participants rated the fragments as being happier, which suggests that they were attending to the happy cue (fast tempo or major mode).
In sum, Hunter et al. (2011) demonstrated that mood has a strong effect on the kind of aspects people primarily focus on. We do not engage music aseptically, we search for congruent cues with our mood. When we’re sad we tend to focus on the minor mode, the slow tempo, or both. When we’re happy we tend to focus on the major mode, the high tempo, or both. It seems, furthermore, that the success or failure in finding such congruent cues has an effect on our aesthetic experience. It would be interesting to know whether such congruence effects also occur when people engage with painting, dance, cinema or literature. Given that all such arts include emotional cues, I anticipate that they would.
It has been said that aesthetic experience is too complex to understand, that too many factors come into play, that it cannot be studied in the laboratory. Many scientific disciplines, like oncology or astrophysics for instance, deal precisely with phenomena that result from the interaction of many different factors. These disciplines have advanced by combining observation in natural settings with breaking down their object of study to analyze each little bit in the lab. Aesthetic experience, it seems to me, is not intrinsically more complex than cancer, or a bigger challenge to human understanding than the origin of the universe. It need not be dealt in a different way to other scientific issues. Admittedly, scientific aesthetics has begun with simplified models, but clearly we are working our way up. We need to keep studying the cognitive and affective processes involved in aesthetic appreciation, as well as their neural underpinnings, and how they are influenced by certain features of the stimuli and personal factors. As this work progresses we can begin putting all of the pieces back together and determining, like Hunter and colleagues (2011) did, the way in which they interact. It is the only way our models will gradually become better representations of true aesthetic experiences.
Hunter, P. G., Schellenberg, E. G., & Griffith, A. T. (2011). Misery loves company: mood-congruent emotional responding to music. Emotion, 11, 1068-1072.