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Neuroesthetics: An Exploration of Aesthetic Appraisal in the Human Brain

drichard's picture

As human beings, by simple virtue of existing in the world, we are in a constant state of aesthetic appraisal. We engage reality in a dialogue through the use of our senses, perceiving external stimuli and assigning values to each input (whether consciously or not) through a reward mechanism. Of particular interest is the way in which this mechanism is employed in the appreciation of visual art. Through the use of neuroimaging technology scientists are beginning to understand how the brain encounters and creates art. This study, known as neuroesthetics, sheds light on why art has been so prevalent and valued over the course of human history and raises questions concerning the nature and future of art.

Semir Zeki is the leader of the Institute of Neuroesthetics at University College London. He is credited as the founder of the field and leads the annual International Conference on Neuroesthetics at UC, Berkeley each year (1). Through his work as a neuroscientist, in particular his extensive exploration into the mechanisms of vision, he has opened a new area of study that fuses empirical aesthetics, art, and neuroscience. Zeki has exploited the windows into the brain afforded by advancements in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to identify the parts of the brain activated when making aesthetic judgments (1). His findings have sparked enthusiasm across many disciplines as the quest to understand humanity through art continues.

Art has been produced and valued by every culture and society since the beginning of time; it is a staple of the human experience. We have all been captivated at one point or another by an expressive piece of art or felt compelled to create art ourselves. Scientists are just now beginning to understand the human predisposition toward art appreciation. It is generally agreed that our propensity to judge stimuli on a basis of aesthetics is rooted in the evolution of the prefrontal cortex (4). Aesthetic perception in this region has kept us alive by “guiding us toward what we need to… survive and warning us to avoid danger” (2). For example, when we observe the aesthetic characteristics of a tiger, its vibrant colours and stripes direct and hold our attention, signaling the need to proceed with caution. This theory is transferable to our perception of art. We evaluate beauty in art with the same tools of the prefrontal cortex with which we evaluated the tiger, though the meaning of our evaluation will undoubtedly differ (4).

A natural extension of this evolutionary theory is the study of the brain’s reward mechanisms. Professor of communication Ann Marie Barry states, “what all aesthetic theories seem to have in common is the idea that pleasure from images (of whatever kind) is gained through the senses and leads to a feeling of euphoria” (2). Appreciating aesthetics typically results in a feeling of gratification. This feeling is the result of a number of cognitive processes. Barry proposes, “the achievement of visual meaning from visual inputs results in aesthetic pleasure simply for the sake of problem solving alone as everything comes together in a unified concept” (2). Neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein continue in this vein of thought, outlining some of the more detailed pleasure-producing processes in their article The Science of Art. They argue that the brain’s ability to dispel ambiguity through processes of grouping and binding in art (in particular, abstract art) results in rewarding sensations (3).

This reward mechanism employed by the brain in aesthetic judgments provides evidence that the visual system is directly connected to the limbic system, the seat of our emotions (2, 3). Due to this connection “we are inclined to make associations that engage other clusters of neurons because whole networks are activated when parts are tapped” (2). These “other clusters” might include the parts of our brain responsible for memory. This is where subjectivity is introduced in aesthetic appreciation. An individual’s specific experiences and memories and the corresponding emotional associations will inform each individual’s perception of an artwork. However, though art appreciation is a personal, subjective phenomenon, there exist observable patterns of aesthetic perception. It seems that the importance of symmetry and the golden ratio serve as common denominators of aesthetic evaluation. Objects or images that exhibit symmetry and/or the divine proportion (1:1.618) are generally more pleasing than those that do not (3).

After the brain appraises the aesthetic object through the reward mechanism the resulting judgment, like most neural pathways, is subjected to a series of reafferent loops. These loops connect various parts of the brain, each informing the others, in order to complete an aesthetic experience. Neuroscientist Luca Francesco Ticini of the Italian Society of Neuroesthetics gives an example of such a loop, stating, “persuasive external factors (social-cultural, for example) can cause an inhibition of the frontal lobes, making us less impartial in our aesthetic judgments. If it were demonstrated that socio-cultural influence deactivates the frontal lobes and thus modifies aesthetic judgment, we would understand, scientifically, how we come to re-evaluate more positively a work of art we do not like when it is placed in a context known to us (for example, when we realize who the artist is and that the artist is universally respected)” (5). In this way parts of the brain outside of the prefrontal cortex influence the way we judge a piece of art. Indeed, it seems that the perception of aesthetics is a function of myriad brain systems as opposed to a singular visual track.

Now that we have achieved a basic understanding of the brain’s mechanism of aesthetic perception it is necessary to discuss its implications, specifically those relating to the art world. First and foremost, the patterns across all human aesthetic perception allow art to be a means of communication. Tocini eloquently phrases this phenomenon in his essay, saying, “this common basis, before art, puts us on the same interpretive plane, allowing us to communicate – through art – profound impressions and emotions, which at times we would be unable to express in words” (5). Our commonalities (such as our love of symmetry discussed in the preceding paragraphs) allow us to bridge the gaps of subjectivity in art appreciation. Ann Marie Barry echoes Tocini and takes his argument a step further, declaring, “shared process, rather than shared experience, allows for communication and expanded understanding in both artist and perceiver. Because the neural circuitry by which the brain works is a common ground shared by all people, artists can manipulate neural structures to achieve desired effects, and these effects can then become… the formula of a particular emotion” (2). “It is for this reason,” states neuroesthetics pioneer Semir Zeki, “that the artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools” (6).

The artist’s new role as a communicative neuroscientist greatly empowers her.  As an “enlightened” student of neurobiology aware of the brain’s aesthetic and limbic mechanisms she can manipulate her audience by artfully rendering the formula for certain emotional responses. She will be more precise and successful in expressing herself and communicating her ideas as she can tailor her art process to coincide with natural human aesthetic propensities. She is also capable of selecting against the formulas or laws of pleasure so as to induce discord in the mind of her audience. If her audience is unaware of neuroesthetics then she is especially able to influence them. If they are “enlightened,” however, then their aesthetic experience will be enhanced proportionally as they understand the neural basis of their experience of discord. Also, an informed audience will undergo a more personal aesthetic experience as they realize that, though patterns exist and though communication through art is possible, no two people will have the same experience or appreciation of an artwork due to the “ ‘cognitive stock’ brought to (their) encounter of the piece” (3).

This new art theory raises interesting questions concerning the future of art. Though it is evident that understanding the neurobiology of aesthetics enhances our appreciation and creation of art, is there a point whereby attempting to quantify art we ruin it? The answer is debatable, though I believe that the subjective aspects of the art process will always prevail; there will always be an aspect of mystery surrounding art as it is so personal and because it relies so heavily on an individual’s particular reality.
As scientists continue to understand and appreciate how the human being passes aesthetic judgment on traditional visual art (paintings and other two dimensional medias) they come closer to the scientific study of other medias. In a postmodern world where the human being is subject to a barrage of images that move and change constantly the push to understand how the brain perceives a series of aesthetic inputs intensifies. What happens when two medias are brought together? For example, when film combines sound and a moving image? It would be particularly interesting to study how two stimuli of conflicting pleasure rates are perceived as they simultaneously affect the brain.

In conclusion, neuroesthetics is the perfect union of two seemingly opposed human endeavors: science and art. It is a shining example of the importance of interdisciplinary work. In the modern age it has become more and more apparent that all knowledge is one and that different fields of study represent different ways to attain the same truth concerning our existence. This notion is physically manifested in the brain’s orchestration of the visual, limbic, and mnemonic systems during aesthetic appraisal.
In the same way that our memories inform our ideas of beauty, neuroscience informs our creation and appreciation of art. In the words of Semir Zeki, “it is only by understanding the neural laws that dictate human activity in all spheres - in law, morality, religion and even economics and politics, no less than in art - that we can ever hope to achieve a more proper understanding of the nature of man” (6).

Works Cited
1. “Neuroesthetics.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 12 Feb. 2009. 15 April 2009 <>.

2. Barry, Ann Marie. “Perceptual Aesthetics: transcendent emotion, neurological image.” Visual Communication Quarterly 13.3 (2006): 134-151.

3. Ramachandran, V.S. and Hirstein, William. “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6.6-7 (1999): 15-51.

4. Camilo J. Cela-Conde, Gisèle Marty, Fernando Maestú, Tomás Ortiz, Enric Munar, Alberto Fernández, Miquel Roca, Rosselló, Felipe Quesney. “Activation of the prefrontal cortex in the human visual aesthetic perception.” PNAS 101.16 (2004): 6321-6325.

5. Ticini, Luca Francesco. “Neuroesthetics: a Step Toward the Comprehension of Human Creativity?” <>

6. Zeki, Semir. “Statement on Neuroesthetics.” <>

Other items of interest related to neuroesthetics:
Esref Armagan is a Turkish painter who has been blind since birth. He is able to paint landscapes and even portraits that he has never actually “seen” (look at his portrait of Bill Clinton). His abilities speak to the brain’s ability to “see” without the use of the eyes. It seems that the brain is a visual organ in and of itself.

This is the website for the Association of Neuroesthetics in Berlin. It has interesting information on the fusion of art and science.

This is the homepage for Semir Zeki’s Institute of Neuroesthetics in London. It has a links to related gallery spaces and artists as well as a link to Prof. Zeki’s personal blog. He has some pretty interesting insights on all things neuroscience.


bpyenson's picture

Doors of Perception

The predominant question I have with the article is one of unadultered or 'virgin' perception.  Is it possible to, in the words of Blake, "If the doors of perceptions were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite." (William Blake, "the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.")?  In other words, can perception exist in a decontextualized or ahistorical setting?  If, as it seems, perception is as much a product of output as it is of input (following the loopy model) then are we only talking about degrees of 'cleansing' of some perceptions being more pure according to certain standards than others?

I believe this issue has a great deal to share with educational philosophy.  For instance, if we believe that through indoctrination, repetition, and conditioning we can change one's values, then in a sense, we hope to change their perception of their world, so that they behave differently, right?

Then, perhaps the issue of trying to achieve one's 'cleansed' perception is more an issue of ethics of to what degree we should alter ours and others perceptions so as to either reach a common ground compromise or to move our perception towards one or the other poles of others' values.

Paul Grobstein's picture

opening the doors of perception

My bet is that a "cleansed" perception would be noise, boring and meaningless.  So that doesn't appeal to me as a goal for education.   Nor does trying to reach a "common ground compromise or to move our perception towards one or another pole of others's values."  But I agree education aims at encouraging people to "change their perception of the world."  How about with the goal being to find a new way to perceive? 

bpyenson's picture

Is a 'new way to perceive'

Is a 'new way to perceive' the same as new perceptions?

Assuming that the myriad variability in nervous systems that makes every individual unique from one another gives each one a different starting set point for perception, then couldn't the different methodologies (ways of perceiving) of perception in fact indoctrinate a group (e.g. a class) to all have the SAME perception?  


For example, if we could characterize a group of five children's nervous system's on an arbitrary quantitative measurement (e.g. aptitude scores), say from 1-5, and each child maintains a different aptitude (so 1 child is a 1, one is a 2, etc.) they would all maintain the SAME starting set point of perception.  Then, if one taught them many different ways to perceive (education)  either through lecture/therapy, changes in ingestion (nutrition and/or drugs), or additional methods, with the goal of instilling in each child all 5 perceptions, haven't we 'educated' the 5 children to see things from all 5 perceptions (for this case 5 are all of the perceptions), and isn't that a useful 'common ground' to have?

I think the missing element in this discussion is getting beyond education to the practice of knowledge.  After you have been taught to think differently and 'see' things from many perceptions, the impetus, it seems, is to apply that knowledge in some way.  In doing that, I think you call on your personal identity (culture etc.) to create a hierarchy of those perceptions.  I guess the hope of education (as I see it) is that maybe you'll reconsider that hierarchy and restructure it differently having been taught to have different perceptions.  Right?

Paul Grobstein's picture

doors of perception: finite or infinite

Why presume there are only five (or any other fixed number of) ways to perceive?  Perhaps having acquired a new way to perceive creates additional new ways to perceive (just as the evolution of a new biological species opens niches for additional species)?  Then one can do better than restructuring "hierarchies of perception."  To "apply that knowledge" would mean to use it to create new ways to perceive ....   

bpyenson's picture

Do Infinite perceptions allow for language?

Assuming perceptions are infinite, then, is there anyway to really know whether we duplicate a given perception?  It would seem that all perceptions are inherently unique, at least empirically.

What does this suggest as far as language is concerned.  Can we achieve any sort of communication or understanding (the common ground I referred to) between individuals/entities that have these inherent unique aspects to their perception that cannot be changed?  I think this should be an issue of significance if we are concerned with the transmission (education?) of those perceptions to others in an authentic way.

bpyenson's picture



On thinking of this issue of education a bit longer, I believe that education consists of two components.  First, the obvious exploratory component of learning new perceptions is essential.  The second component that I believe is also essential is learning how to value those perceptions and structure them in a reasonable hierarchy for the individual.  What would be the point of the exploration one undergoes in education if they don't also acquire some sort of ethical understanding as well?  It seems to me that the ethical component is essential to making the knowledge one acquires efficacious.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Infinite doors of perception and ethics, educational and ...

Perhaps the ethics is inherent in the process, emerges from it,  rather than being a "second component"?  The ethics is "find new ways to see, encourage others to do so"?  In educational contexts and otherwise?  All this is quite relevant to a new Evolving Systems project.  Have a look, get involved? 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Neuroesthetics: potentials and problems

Lots of intriguing quesitons, among them 

  • what is the relation between "everything comes together in a unified concept" and "the experience of discord"?
  • given our discussions, is "the subjective aspects of the art process will always prevail" unique to art?
  • if one knew the entire brain organization related to an esthetic experience, would be experience disappear?  or, conversely, would that produce esthetic experiences? (would knowing the brain organization that yields color percepts produce color percepts)?