Artworks as dichotomous objects, by Robert Pepperell

Artworks as dichotomous objects: implications for the scientific study of aesthetic experience

Pepperell R (2015) Artworks as dichotomous objects: implications for the scientific study of aesthetic experienceFront. Hum. Neurosci9:295. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00295


This paper addresses an issue that has been studied from both scientific and art theoretical perspectives, namely the dichotomous nature of representational artworks. Representational artworks are dichotomous in that they present us with two distinct aspects at once. In one aspect we are aware of what is represented while in the other we are aware of the material from which the representation is composed. The dichotomy arises due the incompatibility, indeed contradiction, between these aspects of awareness, both of which must be present if we are to fully appreciate the artwork. Examples from art history are given to show how artists have exploited this dichotomy in a way that conditions our response to their work. I hypothesize that the degree of manifest dichotomy in a work determines the strength of its aesthetic effect, and propose this could be experimentally tested. I conclude that scientific studies of aesthetic experience should take the dichotomous nature of artworks into account.

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Forthcoming: Art, Aesthetics and the Brain

Watch out for this new book, which will be released July this year: Huston, J. P.; Nadal, M.; Mora, F.; Agnati, L. F. & Cela-Conde, C. J. (Eds.) (2015). Art, Aesthetics and the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Humans have engaged in artistic and aesthetic activities since the appearance of our species. Our ancestors have decorated their bodies, tools, and utensils for over 100,000 years. The expression of meaning using color, line, sound, rhythm, or movement, among other means, constitutes a fundamental aspect of our species’ biological and cultural heritage. Art and aesthetics, therefore, contribute to our species identity and distinguish it from its living and extinct relatives.

Science is faced with the challenge of explaining the natural foundations of such a unique trait, and the way cultural processes nurture it into magnificent expressions, historically and ethnically unique. How does the human brain bring about these sorts of behaviors? What neural processes underlie the appreciation of painting, music, and dance? How does training modulate these processes? How are they impaired by brain lesions and neurodegenerative diseases? How did such neural underpinnings evolve? Are humans the only species capable of aesthetic appreciation, or are other species endowed with the rudiments of this capacity?

This volume brings together the work on such questions by leading experts in genetics, psychology, neuroimaging, neuropsychology, art history, and philosophy. It sets the stage for a cognitive neuroscience of art and aesthetics, understood in the broadest possible terms. With sections on visual art, dance, music, neuropsychology, and evolution, the breadth of this volume’s scope reflects the richness and variety of topics and methods currently used today by scientists to understand the way our brain endows us with the faculty to produce and appreciate art and aesthetics.


Section One: Foundational Issues 

  1.  Neuroculture: A new cultural revolution?, Francisco Mora
  2. Art, meaning, and aesthetics: the case for a cognitive neuroscience of art, William P. Seeley
  3. States, people, and contexts: Three psychological challenges for the neuroscience of aesthetics, Kirill Fayn and Paul J. Silvia
  4. Aesthetic appreciation – convergence from experimental aesthetics and physiology, Helmut Leder, Gernot Gerger and David Brieber
  5. The moving eye of the beholder. Eye-tracking and the perception of paintings, Christoph Klein and Raphael Rosenberg

Section Two: Cognitive Neuroscience of Visual Aesthetics and Art 

  1. Neural mechanisms for evaluating the attractiveness of faces, Spas Getov and Joel S. Winston
  2. Indeterminate art works and the human brain, Robert Pepperell and Alumit Ishai
  3. Contextual bias and insulation against bias during esthetic rating: the implication of VMPFC and DLPFC in neural valuation, Ulrich Kirk and David Freedberg
  4. Neuroimaging studies of making aesthetic products, Oshin Vartanian

Section Three: Cognitive Neuroscience of Dance 

  1. Beautiful embodiment: The shaping of aesthetic preference by personal experience, Emily S. Cross
  2. Sensorimotor aesthetics: Neural correlates of aesthetic perception of dance, Beatriz Calvo-Merino
  3. Towards ecological validity in empirical aesthetics of dance, Julia F. Christensen and Corinne Jola

Section Four: Cognitive Neuroscience of Music 

  1. Liking music: Genres, contextual factors, and individual differences, Kathleen A. Corrigall and E. Glenn Schellenberg
  2. Tension-resolution patterns as a key element of aesthetic experience: psychological principles and underlying brain mechanisms, Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch
  3. From pleasure to liking and back: Bottom-up and top-down neural routes to the aesthetic enjoyment of music, Elvira Brattico
  4. Effects of expertise on the cognitive and neural processes involved in musical appreciation, Marcus T. Pearce

Section Five: Neuropsychology of Art and Aesthetics 

  1. The neuropsychology of visual art, Anjan Chatterjee
  2. The creation of art in the setting of dementia, Indre Viskontas and Suzee Lee
  3. Hemispheric specialization, art, and aesthetics, Dahlia W. Zaidel

Section Six: The Evolution of Art, Aesthetics, and the Brain 

  1. Towards a comparative approach to empirical aesthetics, Gesche Westphal-Fitch and W. Tecumseh Fitch
  2. Art and brain coevolution, Camilo J. Cela-Conde and Francisco J. Ayala
  3. Art as a human “instinct-like” behaviour emerging from the exaptation of the communication processes, Luigi F. Agnati, Diego Guidolin, and Kjell Fuxe

Section Seven: Integrative Approaches 

  1. Neurobiological foundations of art and aesthetics, Edmund T. Rolls
  2. Aesthetic evaluation of art: a formal approach, Alexander J. Huston and Joseph P. Huston
  3. Tempos of eternity: music, volition, and playing with time, Barbara G. Goodrich