Tag Archives: music

The quartet theory of human emotions – Koelsch et al. 2015

Check out this new paper on the neural foundations of human emotions (it comes with many great commentaries):

Koelsch, S., Jacobs, A. M.,  Menninghaus, W.,  Liebal, K.,  Klann-Delius, G.,  von Scheve, C.,  Gebauer, G. (2015) The quartet theory of human emotions: An integrative and neurofunctional modelPhysics of Life Reviews, 13, 1-27.


Despite an explosion of research in the affective sciences during the last few decades, interdisciplinary theories of human emotions are lacking. Here we present a neurobiological theory of emotions that includes emotions which are uniquely human (such as complex moral emotions), considers the role of language for emotions, advances the understanding of neural correlates of attachment-related emotions, and integrates emotion theories from different disciplines. We propose that four classes of emotions originate from four neuroanatomically distinct cerebral systems. These emotional core systems constitute a quartet of affect systems: the brainstem-, diencephalon-, hippocampus-, and orbitofrontal-centred affect systems. The affect systems were increasingly differentiated during the course of evolution, and each of these systems generates a specific class of affects (e.g., ascending activation, pain/pleasure, attachment-related affects, and moral affects). The affect systems interact with each other, and activity of the affect systems has effects on – and interacts with – biological systems denoted here as emotional effector systems. These effector systems include motor systems (which produce actions, action tendencies, and motoric expression of emotion), peripheral physiological arousal, as well as attentional and memory systems. Activity of affect systems and effector systems is synthesized into an emotion percept (pre-verbal subjective feeling), which can be transformed (or reconfigured) into a symbolic code such as language. Moreover, conscious cognitive appraisal (involving rational thought, logic, and usually language) can regulate, modulate, and partly initiate, activity of affect systems and effector systems. Our emotion theory integrates psychological, neurobiological, sociological, anthropological, and psycholinguistic perspectives on emotions in an interdisciplinary manner, aiming to advance the understanding of human emotions and their neural correlates.

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.

oup cover


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

Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty (Ishizu & Zeki, 2011)

Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki recently published a paper entitled “Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty” in the open access journal PLoS ONE. Their main objective was to determine whether there are common neural mechanisms underlying the appreciation of beauty in visual and auditory stimuli. In order to do so, they asked 21 volunteers to rate 30 paintings and 30 musical fragments, presented for 16 seconds, on a 1 to 9 beauty scale while their brain activity was being scanned by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Stimuli receiving ratings between 1 and 3 were classified as ugly, those between 4 and 6 were classified as indifferent, and those between 7 and 9 were classified as beautiful.

Their results revealed that rating the beauty of painting and music was related with activity in several brain areas. However, there was a single common region that was more active while people viewed or listened to stimuli they regarded as beautiful than the rest. This brain region was located in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). Their analysis showed that neural activity in this region increased, almost linearly, with the beauty scores awarded to paintings and musical fragments. This relation is clearly visible in their figure 2, shown here:

The authors aimed to ascertain whether the mOFC region involved in judging the beauty of paintings and music excerpts was actually the same, so they performed a conjunction analysis. As shown in the next figure, their analysis revealed a specific region of the mOFC (in yellow) that is more active while engaging with stimuli, whether visual or auditory, regarded by the participants as beautiful. The authors refer to it as subdivision A1 of the mOFC.

Ishizu and Zeki (2011) have addressed the important and pressing issue of differences and similarities in the neural underpinnings of the experience of the beauty of stimuli belonging to different sensory modalities. They should also be commended for attempting to bridge the scientific and humanistic approaches to aesthetics. The authors discuss their results in light of the work of philosophers and art theorists. Specifically, they build upon Edmund Burke’s physiological perspective by proposing that “all works that appear beautiful to a subject have a single brain-based characteristic, which is that they have as a correlate of experiencing them a change in strength of activity within the mOFC and, more specifically, within field A1 in it” (Ishizu & Zeki, 2011, p. 8). I fear, however, that few humanists will be sympathetic to their reductionist brain-based theory of beauty.

Also, even though later in the paper Ishizu and Zeki (2011) “broaden [their] neurobiological definition of beauty given above to include not only activation of mOFC but also its co-activation with sensory areas that feed it” (Ishizu & Zeki, 2011, p. 9), I get the impression from reading their work that the authors regard mOFC subdivision A1 as a sort of beauty detector, downplaying the role of other brain regions and assigning it a very specific role in the experience of beauty. Previous neuroimaging studies, however, have demonstrated that a number of other brain regions are involved in the appreciation of beauty (Nadal & Pearce, 2011). Moreover, the important role of cognitive processes related with perception, memory, emotion, expectations and decision-making is widely recognized today. In fact, the interaction among these processes is the essence of psychological and neuroscientific models of beauty appreciation (Chatterjee, 2004; Leder et al., 2004).

From this interactionist perspective, the experience of beauty cannot be equated with increases in the activity of any given brain region. Rather, it is viewed as the result of the interaction among brain regions related with processes perception, memory, reward, and so on. Ishizu and Zeki’s (2011) significant contribution has shown that some of these regions are involved in the appreciation of the beauty of both paintings and music. The kind of brain-based theory of beauty that we need today, however, is one that can clarify how beauty emerges from the activity of a network of broadly distributed brain regions, and how certain personal and environmental factors modulate activity in those regions and the mutual interactions among them.

Chatterjee A. 2004. Prospects for a Cognitive Neuroscience of Visual Aesthetics. Bulletin of Psychology of the Arts 4:55-60.

Ishizu, T. & Zeki, S. (2011) Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE, 6: e21852.  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021852.  [pdf]

Leder H, Belke B, Oeberst A, Augustin D. 2004. A model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments. British Journal of Psychology 95:489-508.

Nadal, M., & Pearce, M. T. (2011). The Copenhagen Neuroaesthetics conference: Prospects and pitfalls for an emerging field. Brain and Cognition, 76, 172–183. [pdf]