20. December 2018

Appealing art has a lasting effect

Imagine you are looking at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for the first time. What is that experience like? Perhaps the first thing you notice is the large amount of blue. Then you might zoom in on details to notice the stars and the rings of paint around them, and then details of the village below, while still feeling the blue sky. As you explore the painting, your understanding changes, and so do the rewarding feelings you get from the experience.

Aesthetic experiences unfold over time, even when the artwork does not change. How does the brain create these dynamic experiences? A new paper published this week in NeuroImage suggests that a key to these dynamics lies in the distinction between parts of the brain that respond to the outside world, versus those that look inward at ourselves.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique for assessing brain activity, the authors measured how participants’ brains responded while viewing images of artworks for up to 15 seconds. The scientists were particularly interested in a brain system known as the “default mode network” (DMN). The DMN supports reflective mental processes, like thinking about ourselves or monitoring our thoughts and feelings. This inward-focus of the DMN stands in contrast to the outward-focus of our sensory and motor systems that make sense of and act upon our environment.

Normally, the DMN becomes less active when we pay attention to something in the outside world like an image, while sensory brain regions become more active. But when we find an artwork aesthetically pleasing, something different happens. Surprisingly, parts of the DMN become active again even though the focus lies on the outer world – the artwork. Thus, aesthetically appealing artworks engage both externally directed and internally directed thought processes. Edward Vessel, Senior Research Scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and co-author on the paper, thinks that “this brain state may be relatively rare, and potentially a hallmark of moving aesthetic experiences.”

But that’s not all. The DMN response to an artwork we find appealing is not just positive, in fact, it ‘locks on’ to such external experience. When a person looks at an artwork they find appealing, the DMN remains engaged until the image disappears from the screen. On the other hand, when a person looks at an artwork they don’t find appealing, the DMN does not ‘lock on’: after an initial drop in activity, the DMN becomes active again no matter whether the image is still on the screen or not. The viewer is no longer engaging with the artwork at all – their mind has moved on to think about something else.

“During an art experience, what is ‘out there’ matters less than how our minds engage with it” explains Amy Belfi, Assistant Professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology and co-author on the paper. That process of engagement, of staying with artworks that grab us, appears to rely heavily on engagement of the inwardly focused DMN by our outward looking senses.

Original publication:

Belfi, A., Vessel, E.A., Brielmann, A., Isik, A.I., Chatterjee, A., Leder, H., Pelli, D. & Starr, G.(2018). Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default-mode network. NeuroImage. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.12.017


Edward Vessel (Co-Author)

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