Visual Neuroaesthetics (VisNA) Lab

What does it mean for a painting to fill us with wonder, for a sunset to be beautiful or for a film to move us? Why do some visual experiences have the power to reach inside and grab us, while others leave little impression? How can we measure these experiences scientifically?

In the VisNA Lab, we study the psychological and neural basis of aesthetic experiences, such as when a person is aesthetically “moved” by visual art, poetry, architecture, music, or natural landscapes. Much of our research relies on brain imaging (fMRI, EEG) and behavioral techniques. We also frequently use computational tools (e.g. machine learning), measurements of physiology and eyetracking. 

Our core research areas are:

  • Identifying the central cognitive and emotional processes that underly aesthetic experiences and the interacting neural systems that support them.
  • Characterizing the conditions that lead to “shared taste” across a population of individuals in different aesthetic domains.
  • Development of methods for studying aesthetic experiences in more naturalistic settings such as museums and performance halls.


Want to volunteer for our studies?

Go here to sign up for the Institute's Research Participant Registry.



New Paper: The default-mode network represents aesthetic appeal that generalizes across visual domains. 


In May, the VisNA Lab presented work at the Vision Sciences Society (VSS) annual meeting in Florida.




Paneldiscussion at Freie Kunstakademie, Mannheim

Dominik Welke will discuss with Friedrich Weltzien (Hochschule Hannover) in the Panel "Hirn und Sinn" at "Kunst ist Zwecklos" event in Mannheim (event in German language / Veranstaltung in Deutscher Sprache)



In August, the VisNA Lab heads to Leuven, Belgium for a conference double-header: VSAC and ECVP.




Edward A. Vessel

Team Leader

Ayse Ilkay Isik

PhD Candidate

Dominik Welke

PhD Candidate





Latest Publications

Isik, A. I., & Vessel, E. A. (2019). Continuous ratings of movie watching reveal idiosyncratic dynamics of aesthetic enjoyment. PLoS One,14(10): e0223896. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0223896.

Belfi, A. M., Vessel, E. A., Brielmann, A., Isik, A. I., Chatterjee, A., Leder, H., Pelli, D. G., & Starr, G. (2019). Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default-mode network. NeuroImage,188, 584-597. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.12.017.

Vessel, E. A., Isik, A. I., Belfi, A. M., Stahl, J. L., & Starr, a. G. G. (2019). The default-mode network represents aesthetic appeal that generalizes across visual domains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. doi:10.1073/pnas.1902650116.

Esteban, O., Markiewicz, C. J., Blair, R. W., Moodie, C. A., Isik, A. I., Erramuzpe, A., Kent, J. D., Goncalves, M., DuPre, E., Snyder, M., Oya, H., Ghosh, S. S., Wright, J., Durnez, J., Poldrack, R. A., & Gorgolewski, K. J. (2019). fMRIPrep: A robust preprocessing pipeline for functional MRI. Nature methods,16(1), 111-116. doi:10.1038/s41592-018-0235-4.

Isik, A. I., Naumer, M. J., Kaiser, J., Buschenlange, C., Wiesmann, S., Czoschke, S., & Yalachkov, Y. (2017). Automatized smoking-related action schemata are reflected by reduced fMRI activity in sensorimotor brain regions of smokers. NeuroImage: Clinical,15, 753-760. doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2017.06.021.

Vessel, E. A., Biederman, I., Subramaniam, S., & Greene, M. R. (2016). Effective signaling of surface boundaries by L-vertices reflect the consistency of their contrast in natural images. Journal of Vision,16(9): 15. doi:doi:10.1167/16.9.15.
PuRe Locator 1

Vessel, E. A., Maurer, N., Denker, A. H., & Starr, G. G. (2018). Stronger shared taste for natural aesthetic domains than for artifacts of human culture. Cognition,179, 121-131. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2018.06.009.

Belfi, A. M., Vessel, E. A., & Starr, G. G. (2018). Individual ratings of vividness predict aesthetic appeal in poetry. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts,12(3), 341-350. doi:10.1037/aca0000153.

Belfi, A. M., Kasdan, A., Rowland, J., Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Poeppel, D. (2018). Rapid timing of musical aesthetic judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,147(10), 1531-1543. doi:10.1037/xge0000474.




  • Dataset from Vessel et al. (2018) "Stronger shared taste for natural aesthetic domains than for artifacts of human culture."