Imagine you are looking at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting for the first time. What do you experience?
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 examining the blue sky. As you explore the painting, your understanding changes, and so do the pleasurable feelings you receive from the experience.
How does the brain create these experiences, and how does it decide if artwork is aesthetically pleasing?
A forthcoming paper in Elsevier’s journal Neuroimage, “Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default mode network,” suggests that a key to understanding aesthetic experiences lies in the distinction between parts of the brain that respond to the outside world, versus those that look inward at ourselves. Lead co-authors of the study are Dr. Amy M. Belfi, assistant professor of psychological science at Missouri S&T, and Dr. Edward A. Vessel, senior research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.
The authors were particularly interested in a brain system known as the “default mode network” (DMN). This network supports reflective mental processes, like thinking about ourselves or monitoring our thoughts and feelings. It is comprised of several areas of the cerebral cortex that are most active when no external tasks demand our attention. The DMN’s inward focus contrasts with the outward focus of our sensory and motor systems that make sense of and act upon our environment.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique for assessing brain activity, the authors measured how 25 participants’ brains responded while viewing images of artworks.
Vessel notes that when we pay attention to something in the outside world, like an image, normally the sensory brain regions become more active, and the DMN de-activates. But the research found that when we find artwork aesthetically pleasing, something different happens. Even though the brain’s focus lies on the outer world of the artwork, the DMN becomes active again, engaging both inward-focused and outward-focused brain regions, which usually work in opposition.
“This brain state may be relatively rare, and potentially a hallmark of moving aesthetic experiences,” says Vessel. “What really matters during an aesthetic experience with art is less about what is ‘out there’ and more about how our minds engage with the art and interpret the experience. That engagement process — of staying with artworks that grab us — appears to rely heavily on engagement of the inwardly focused DMN by our outward looking senses.”
“We found that experiences that involve the extended ‘mental free play’ of the DMN simultaneously combined with our sensory hierarchies are experienced as more aesthetically appealing,” says Belfi. “This may mean that we enjoy certain pieces of art because they resonate with us — they involve the same brain networks we use when thinking about ourselves, our memories and our future.”
Belfi anticipates that future work on this topic will try to investigate whether the DMN’s role in aesthetic appreciation is unique to visual art, or a hallmark of aesthetic experiences more generally, whether in response to music, poetry, architecture and other art forms.
“Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default mode network,” was written in collaboration with Ayse Ilkay Isik of the Max Planck Institute, Aenne Brielmann and Denis G. Pelli of New York University, Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Helmut Leder of the University of Vienna and G. Gabrielle Starr of Pomona College.