27. April 2021

What is Empirical Aesthetics?

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

Empirical Aesthetics—where art and the natural sciences come together (Picture: Wassiliwizky & Wontorra)

Aesthetic processing has a great impact on our everyday lives. It influences our choices regarding romantic partners, where we wish to live, how we dress, which objects we surround ourselves with, and the activities we pursue in our leisure time. Empirical aesthetics aims to illuminate and explain aesthetic experience using methods from the natural sciences. But how exactly does that happen? Researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA) have now published a programmatic overview of the ideas and concepts central to this exciting field of science.

The desire to identify the principles underlying aesthetic processing goes back to antiquity. But it is only in the past decade that the field of empirical aesthetics—and in particular its subfield of neuroaesthetics—has achieved greater visibility in academia and the media. There is still little agreement, however, on how to conceptualize empirical aesthetics as an autonomous field of research, what its key concepts are and how to define them, and which methodological framework makes sense for its future development.

In their open-access article just published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, MPIEA researchers take an in-depth look at the discipline’s past, present, and future.

“Existing research on aesthetics can be categorized according to two primary approaches: subject-oriented or stimulus-oriented,” explains lead author Eugen Wassiliwizky. “But in order to give empirical aesthetics a permanent home in the academy, the two must be joined in a new, integrated approach.”

The authors show that empirical aesthetics encompasses far more than just the perception of beauty. Negative emotions, too, play a key role in aesthetic experience. Aesthetic processing permeates and influences all aspects of human cognition, emotion, and motivation. A thorough scientific understanding of the mechanisms underlying aesthetic experience is thus relevant not only with regard to the purely aesthetic aspects of human life, but will benefit other areas of science as well. 


Original Publication:
Wassiliwizky, E. & Menninghaus, W. (2021). Why and how should cognitive science care about aesthetics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2021.03.008

Eugen Wassiliwizky