August 2009
Volume 9, Issue 8
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   August 2009
This is your brain on art
Author Affiliations
  • Edward A. Vessel
    Center for Neural Science, New York University
  • G. Gabrielle Starr
    Dept. of English, New York University
  • Nava Rubin
    Center for Neural Science, New York University
Journal of Vision August 2009, Vol.9, 951. doi:
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      Edward A. Vessel, G. Gabrielle Starr, Nava Rubin; This is your brain on art. Journal of Vision 2009;9(8):951. doi:

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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The nature of aesthetic response to artwork has long been debated by scientists and philosophers alike, yet an understanding of aesthetic reactions remains elusive. Is an aesthetic reaction to visual art more than a simple preference to certain visual stimuli? And if so, in what way (e.g. additional emotional components, and/or larger range)? We combined fMRI with behavioral factor analysis to address this. Sixteen observers viewed 109 paintings while whole head BOLD fMRI was collected. After viewing each artwork for 6 sec., observers made a recommendation (1–4 score) indicating how aesthetically pleasing they found the artwork. Following scanning, observers viewed the artworks again and rated the degree to which each artwork evoked the following emotions: pleasure, fear, disgust, sadness, confusion, awe, joy, sublimity and beauty. Observers showed moderate agreement in their emotional reactions to the artwork, but almost no agreement in which stimuli they found aesthetically pleasing. Factor analysis was used to identify latent variables, revealing individual differences in how observers evaluated the paintings - the majority of observers (twelve) used two or more unipolar factors for emotional valence (a positive factor and a separate, uncorrelated negative factor), while the remaining four observers treated valence as a singular bipolar factor. Factors reflecting emotional intensity were also commonly observed. Correlation of scores with BOLD revealed brain areas related to aesthetic preferences, including several sites previously reported for art and non-art stimuli (striatum, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate). In addition, we found several frontal (frontal operculum, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, superior frontal sulcus, precentral sulcus), posterior (intra-parietal sulcus, superior temporal sulcus), and subcortical sites (mediodorsal thalamus, substantia nigra) not previously reported. Both the behavioral and brain data suggest that an aesthetic reaction to visual artwork is more multidimensional than a simple preference, is highly individual, and involves the interaction of multiple emotional components.

Vessel, E. A. Starr, G. G. Rubin, N. (2009). This is your brain on art [Abstract]. Journal of Vision, 9(8):951, 951a,, doi:10.1167/9.8.951. [CrossRef]

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