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Neuroaesthetics: Neuroscience of aesthetics

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There is general consensus that the publication of Gustav Theodor Fechner’s (1876) Vorschule der Aesthetik marks the birth of the field of psychological aesthetics. As a psychophysicist, Fechner worked under the assumption that there is a correspondence between the physical properties of stimuli and the ...

There is general consensus that the publication of Gustav Theodor Fechner’s (1876) Vorschule der Aesthetik marks the birth of the field of psychological aesthetics. As a psychophysicist, Fechner worked under the assumption that there is a correspondence between the physical properties of stimuli and the sensations that they cause. Of course, at the time of Fechner’s writings there was no possibility to observe the neural processes that mediate the hypothesized relationship between variations in the physical properties of stimuli and their psychological consequences (e.g., sensations). Nevertheless, he distinguished between outer psychophysics which involves the relationship between variations in the physical properties of stimuli and the sensations that they cause, and inner psychophysics which involves the relationship between those sensations and the neural activities that underlie them. In this sense, he was truly ahead of his time by anticipating one of the main goals of the modern neuroscience of aesthetics, which is to establish correspondences between neural function and perceptual, cognitive and affective processes that make up aesthetic experience. Arguably, the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics is properly viewed as a natural extension of Fechner’s empirical goal to understand the interaction between the object’s features and the subject’s active engagement with the world that lies at the core of aesthetic experience.

Having said this, the relevant empirical scope, limits, and prospects of the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics are hotly debated. In large measure this is due to disagreements about the nature of aesthetic experience. Should the field focus on studying the contribution of general-purpose perceptual, reward, memory, and decision-making mechanisms to aesthetic experience, or should it focus on isolating only those mechanisms that contribute to strong feelings of awe? Do aesthetic emotions differ from common emotions, and if so, what are the biological concomitants of this difference? How did aesthetic behavior evolve? Given the strong historical association of the concepts of beauty and art with aesthetics, should the study of how artifacts evoke a sense of beauty hold a privileged position in the field? To what extent is the search for a “beauty module” central to the aims of the field? What are some of the social and contextual contributors to aesthetic experience that might elude neuroscientific approaches? Can the role of personal and cultural significance in aesthetic experience be understood at a biological level? We welcome contributions that will serve to sharpen our understanding of neuroaesthetics with respect to the aforementioned questions. We look forward to receiving empirical manuscripts that contain behavioural, neuropsychological, brain stimulation, evolutionary and brain imaging data. We also encourage the submission of critical reviews of the field, manuscripts focusing on methodology, and opinion papers that raise foundational concerns to stimulate renewed thinking about the aims of the field. Given the central role played by aesthetic considerations in a host of important life decisions, it is our hope that this collection of papers will further energize the field by motivating new ways of searching for its bases.


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