Online Discussion at APA 2020 Virtual: The Study of Aesthetic Experience

The Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics is part of the 2020 Virtual Convention of the American Psychological Association. You are invited to watch our symposium “The Study of Aesthetic Experience: Who Likes What, and Why?” (Chair: Ines Schindler) and to join our live Zoom meeting with our discussant Ellen Winner and the presenters.

Not registered for APA 2020 Virtual?

Just use the links below to watch our video and to join the Zoom meeting.

Live Zoom Discussion with Ellen Winner: Friday, August 7, at 10 p.m. CEST / 4 p.m. EDT

Ellen Winner will open the discussion of the five symposium presentations. You are invited to join us in exploring further questions and ideas on the study of aesthetic experience.

The discussion will be visible and audible through a platform, called „Zoom“. If you would like to participate, please use the following link:

Please note that we will record the Zoom meeting and make the recording available through the APA Convention platform together with the symposium presentations.

If you want to have your questions and comments deleted from the recording, please send an e-mail to Ines Schindler:



The Study of Aesthetic Experience: Who Likes What, and Why?

APA Submission Reference Number: 0490_0706_000602
Chair: Ines Schindler

Symposium Abstract:

Aesthetic experience is a fundamental way that people interact with their environment and therefore provides insights into core mechanisms of human experience.


This symposium brings together research projects on processes underlying aesthetic perception and evaluation of visual art, music, and stories. The research spans a broad range of methods including the manipulation of stimulus material, recordings of (neuro)physiological data as well as self-report and behavioral observations in controlled laboratory experiments and more ecologically valid live settings involving an entire audience. In addition to illuminating basic cognitive, affective, and physiological underpinnings of aesthetically appealing experiences, we will address how aesthetic experience is shaped by context, including culture, age, and social groups. The five presentations were put together to illustrate the scope of our research at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA), which currently encompasses three departments (language and literature, music, and neuroscience) and three independent research groups. This institute is unusual, perhaps unique, because it houses a large interdisciplinary and international team of researchers and significant infrastructure all devoted to the study of empirical aesthetics. This symposium will address the general question of “Who likes what, and why?” The answers we will provide help inform our understanding of processes, mecha­nisms, and functions that are common across many kinds of aesthetic experiences and those that apply only to specific aesthetic domains or groups of individuals.

Presentations featured in the video

Abstract Presentation 1

Visual Aesthetic Experiences and the Default-Mode Network

Edward A. Vessel
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics


Despite being highly subjective, visual aesthetic experiences are powerful moments of inter­action with one’s surroundings, shaping behavior, mood, beliefs, and even a sense of self. When studied with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), image viewing typically generates activation of the ventral visual pathway but suppression of the default-mode network (DMN). Previously, we reported that viewing of artworks rated as strongly aesthetically moving was correlated with activity in both the ventral visual pathway and the DMN, suggesting that moving aesthetic experiences lead to a shift in the dynamics of large-scale brain networks. In a subsequent study, artworks were presented for different durations to allow dissociation of processes related to image onset versus offset. We found evidence that the DMN was engaged by visual processing of aesthetically pleasing artworks, but disengaged from the processing of nonpreferred artworks. In a third study, we show that the DMN contains a multivoxel pattern that can be used to predict aesthetic appeal. This pattern is domain-general, allowing for pre­diction when trained on one visual aesthetic domain (artworks, natural landscapes, or architec­ture) but tested on another. In contrast, multivoxel patterns in higher-level visual regions (ventral occipitotemporal cortex) contain very little informa­tion about aesthetic appeal, and are domain-specific. These studies support a model of appealing aesthetic experiences that moves beyond the postulation of a single “beauty” region – such experiences involve inte­gration of information across multiple large-scale brain systems. Positioned at the top of the cortical hierarchy, the DMN appears to play an important role in these integrative experiences.

Abstract Presentation 2

Right or Wrong: Evaluation of the Correctness of Music Performances

Pauline Larrouy-Maestri1 and David Poeppel1,2,3
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, 2New York University, 3Center for Language, Music, and Emotion


Listeners are reliable judges when assessing music performances: they can easily evaluate if a singer sounds in or out of tune or if a band plays on or off the beat. Indeed, we commonly assess the technical quality of performances and categorize what we hear as right or wrong. Recently, it has been suggested that such categorization relies on quantifiable acoustic fea­tures, in both the pitch and timing dimensions. However, as is true for several types of judgments (e.g., beauty or obscenity), the definition of “correctness” lacks clarity, and the foun­dation of such categorizations remains unclear. Focusing on the pitch and time dimensions, we present a series of psychophysical experiments designed to examine what “correctness” means in different musical contexts and how this information is processed, e.g., continuous versus categorical judgments. The data suggest (1) that explicit learning is not necessary to develop higher order categories relative to correctness, and (2) that these categories are stable across the presented material. Interestingly, we observe considerable individual differences in correctness judgment that are currently investigated. Additionally, we explore listeners’ aesthe­tic experiences. Indeed, we usually do not attend opera or pop concerts to evaluate the correct­ness of a performance but to enjoy it. To do so, we examined participants singing preferences when listening to classical and pop repertoire performed by highly trained singers, as well as the relation between such a judgment and the better understood correctness judgment. Besides clarifying the notion of correctness and the categorization process associated with the evaluation of technical quality, this research paves the way for exploring cognitive mechanisms underlying music perception and for understanding the roots of aesthetic experience.

Abstract Presentation 3

Aesthetics of Timing across Musical Cultures, Styles, and Expertise

Kelly Jakubowski,1 Nori Jacoby,2 and Rainer Polak2
Durham University, 2Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics


Research on auditory perception has proposed that entrainment (the human ability to synchro­nize action with perceived temporal events) requires isochrony (strict periodicity of the events) and is supported by biological mechanisms. However, when entrainment is realized in human behavior (e.g., music and dance), performance deviates considerably from ideal synchrony and isochrony. So far, it has not been clear whether these discrepancies are best explained in terms of (1) errors in production, (2) a preference for deviation from perceptual reference struc­tures, seen as expressive, or (3) asynchronous/non-isochronous behaviors constituting ex­perience-based reference structures in their own right. This remains unclear in part because the individual (subjective), group-level (sociocultural), and objective (stimulus-based) factors that influence aesthetic preferences for musical timing variations have not been studied syste­matically, studied in isolation, or studied only in participants with uniform (Western) musical exposure. Here, we study aesthetic preferences for systematic deviations from synchrony and isochrony, and the factors influencing such preferences. We recruited both musician and non-musician participant groups (N = 176) from three countries (UK, Mali, and Uruguay). We resynthesized musical excerpts forming naturalistic yet manipulation-ready examples of three different musical styles (Jazz, Jembe, and Candombe) and manipulated two aspects of the stimuli: time differences between instruments (asynchronies) and patterned deviations from isochrony (metric grid). Participants engaged with the stimuli in three complementary tasks: aesthetic preference rating, a perceptual discrimination task, and sensorimotor synchroniza­tion through finger tapping. We found a universal preference towards synchronicity, but culturally contingent preferences for systematic deviation from isochrony, thereby disentang­ling these two aspects of musical rhythm that were thus far considered as a unitary construct. This suggests that temporal processing relies on distinct mechanisms that vary in their reliance on low-level and high-level perception. Findings point to the role of cultural familiarity in shaping aesthetic preferences.

Abstract Presentation 4

Aesthetic Emotions and Psychophysiology in Response to Live Contemporary/Classical Music

Julia Merrill, Anna Czepiel, Lea Fink, Jutta Toelle, and Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics


Music listening can lead to strong aesthetic experiences. Extending typical laboratory studies, which report the relations between self-reports and psychophysiology, the current study set out to investigate music listening in the real-world setting of a concert. During three chamber music concerts with an identical program of three string quintets from the classical, romantic and contemporary period, psychophysiological data (facial electromyography (EMG) and arousal measures) and self-reports on the aesthetic experience (music-induced emotions and absorption) were recorded from 98 participants. The results show that the contemporary work differed from the other works by revealing higher evoked negative emotions together with higher EMG and skin conductance activity. In the classical and the romantic work, the partici­pants’ reactions mirrored the compositional strategy of a sonata cycle, suggesting three distinctive sections. Decreased physiological activity together with reported higher melancholy and being moved in second and third movements suggest the perception of a distinct inner section within the overall work. Particularly the third movements reflect their different functions depending on the musical style: in the romantic work, it reveals its transitional function by grouping with the second movement, in the classical work, it reveals its resolving function by grouping with the closing movement. The closing sections lead to an increased activity in arousal measures together with positive emotions and engagement. Further, using a random forest approach, each physiological measure showed a different set of predicting self-report items, illustrating the various responses that occur in a concert situation with live performances from different styles.

Abstract Presentation 5

The Feeling of Good Stories: Children’s and Adults’ Aesthetic Emotions

Ines Schindler and Winfried Menninghaus
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics


This presentation on children’s and adults’ aesthetic emotions in response to stories addresses one overarching question: How can we conceptualize, measure, and compare aesthetic emo­tions of children and adults? We invited 205 children (5-11 years; 49% girls) and an accom­panying adult (usually the mother, 80%, or father, 16%) to attend one of 31 sessions (2-28 participants per session, M = 13) conducted in our ArtLab. Children and adults listened to a live performance of a children’s story or a fairy tale. We recorded psychophysiological data during listening (not reported here) and measured participants’ emotions after listening with the newly developed Aesthetic Emotions Scale for Children and Adolescents (Aesthemos-CA). We propose the Four Aesthetic Feeling States (FAFES) Model as a way to integrate the set of measured aesthetic emotions, such as interest, suspense, joy, feelings of beauty, being moved, enchantment, boredom, and confusion. Each of the four feeling factors – beauty/plea­singness, being moved/affection, captivation, and negative evaluation – comprises a range of related aesthetic emotions and is linked to aesthetic evaluation (here, story evaluation). In sum, our findings showed that our new measure allows modeling and comparing aesthetic emotions of children and adults on four factors and, thus, provides a resource for future lifespan develop­mental research on the aesthetic experience. We also presented evidence for why the new measure is preferable to basic emotion measures to assess aesthetic emotions. Finally, when the four factors are included as rival predictors, feelings of captivation emerged as the best predictor of story liking among both children and adults, which fits with the notion of suspense and captivation as central to the aesthetic appeal of narratives.