By Jessica Herrington
Not all art is beautiful. So why do we enjoy looking at art that may not be aesthetically pleasing? Do we get a kick out of looking at things that displease us? It may be the case that we have evolved to enjoy aesthetic experiences that are emotionally ‘moving’, regardless of whether they are pleasurable or not.
Researchers Edward A. Vessel, G. Gabrielle Starr and Nava Rubin of New York University analyzed the specific neural networks which are activated when someone undergoes an aesthetic experience. Their article titled “The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network” was published in the journal “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.”
The researchers analyzed both positive and negative aesthetic judgments, namely: beauty, pleasure, joy, awe, sublime, confusion, sadness, disgust and fear.
Photo credit: Vessel, Edward A., G. Gabrielle Starr, and Nava Rubin, "The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network." Frontiers in human neuroscience 6 (2012). Photo caption: Neural data showing an increase in activated brain regions (orange) while undergoing an aesthetic experience.
While aesthetic judgments varied widely, many people showed similar levels of brain activation when viewing the same artworks. The most moving artworks activated more brain regions known to play a role in computing personally relevant information, as well as evaluating aesthetic and emotional experiences. That is, people were more emotionally ‘moved’ by an artwork when they thought it was relevant to them.
The researchers also found that no two people were emotionally moved to the same degree when viewing identical artworks. While this may have been expected, a key question to arise from this research is why we vary so greatly in our aesthetic judgements.
To answer this question, there is a call for abstracts related to this theme to be published in Frontiers. Interested participants can submit abstracts here. Submissions close on the 1st November, 2015.
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