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The neural mechanisms underlying aesthetic appreciation

By Zaira Cattaneo and Marcos Nadal

Humans are apparently the only species to aesthetically enjoy the world around them. What is it that allows us to admire the elegance of a ballet dancer, or to enjoy the beauty of the sun’s reflection on the sea as it sets under the horizon? What aspect of our nature enables us to be moved by a piece of music, or by the sublime in a painting like Turner’s Shipwreck of the Minotaur?

Shipwreck of the Minotaur (ca. 1810)

Neuroaesthetics is precisely attempting to answer these sorts of questions. Cognitive neuroscientists are studying the brain mechanisms that give rise to aesthetic experiences. Brain lesion and neuroimaging studies have taught us quite a lot about the nature of aesthetic experiences. We know that it is a complex experience arising from the interaction among the nodes of a broadly distributed network of cortical and subcortical brain regions related to perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes. These processes or underlying mechanisms are not specialized in aesthetic responses; they all play crucial roles in other domains of human experience, from perceiving small details in the world or making small decisions to abstract reasoning or establishing social relationships. Indeed, Friedrich Schiller referred to beauty as an aesthetic unity of thought and feeling, of contemplation and sensation, of reason and intuition, of activity and passivity, of form and matter.

Can this extraordinary complexity be generated by neurons firing in specific regions of our brain? This question also applies to another extraordinary human experience: consciousness. Our approach is not inherently reductionist, but still, we are cognitive scientists. And, as such, we believe that aesthetic experience (as consciousness, in fact) indeed is caused in our brain, likely as a result of complex interactions between different brain regions.

One of these regions, the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (lDLPFC), seems to play a critical role in aesthetic appreciation. Several brain imaging studies have shown that activity in this region is greater when people view artworks and photographs they find beautiful or like more than when they view artworks and photographs they judge as not beautiful or like less. Thus, there are grounds to believe that the increase in lDLPFC activity observed during aesthetic appreciation is specifically related to the adoption of an aesthetic orientation towards visual images.

However, previous studies have relied on correlational evidence. But (taking from and freely interpret another recent blog post) “… correlation does not imply causation. At best it might be taken as indicative or symptomatic of it”. Accordingly, knowledge about the specific role of the lDLPFC in aesthetic appreciation was, until recently, mostly conjectural. We recently carried out an experiment that aimed to overcome these limitations. We used, for the first time, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to directly test whether the lDLPFC plays indeed a causal role in aesthetic appreciation of representational and abstract paintings. This technique uses electrical currents to enhance the excitability in targeted brain region. We expected that increasing activity in the lDLPFC via tDCS would lead to a greater appreciation for the presented pictures.

Our predictions were confirmed, at least partially. Our enhancement of activity in the lDLPFC produced an increase of aesthetic appreciation for figurative artworks and photographs, but not for abstract images. Critically, the effect on figurative images was specific for their aesthetic appreciation, and did not extend to other types of visual judgments, like the evaluation of colourfulness.

We believe that our findings show that the lDLPFC facilitates the disengagement from a habitual mode of identifying objects to adopt an aesthetic perspective. And artistically naive people, as the ones we tested, may be oriented aesthetically toward objects they understand or they do not (generally, abstract art) to a different extent. This without neglecting possible tDCS effects on mood: indeed, the lDLPFC is also known to be a critical region in emotional processing, and the enhancement of lDLPFC activity through brain stimulation reduces depressive symptoms.

In conclusion, our results show that the judgments of beauty can be artificially enhanced using brain stimulation. Emily Dickinson was only partially right: beauty certainly is, but it can also be enhanced… well, at least in our brain!

Zaira Cattaneo is at the Department of Psychology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milano, and the Brain Connectivity Center, IRCCS Mondino, Pavia, Italy. Marcos Nadal is at the Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods of the University of Vienna, Austria. They are the authors of the paper ‘The world can look better: Enhancing beauty experience with brain stimulation’, which is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN) provides a home for the best research that uses neuroscience techniques to understand the social and emotional aspects of the human mind and human behavior.

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Image credit: Shipwreck of the Minotaur by J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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