CognitionJournalMotivation and EmotionSensory Systems

Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default-mode network

When participants viewed artworks rated as highly “aesthetically moving,” the default-mode network (DMN, in yellow) was engaged by visual stimulation from the ventral visual pathway (pink). However, when viewing artworks that were not highly rated, the dynamics of the DMN were independent of visual stimulation, potentially reflecting “stimulus-independent” thought. Artwork: Wheat Field with Cypresses, c. 1889. Vincent van Gogh (Dutch,1853-1890). Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993.132. Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1993.

Neuroaesthetics is a rapidly developing interdisciplinary field of research that aims to understand the neural substrates of aesthetic experience: While understanding aesthetic experience has been an objective of philosophers for centuries, it has only more recently been embraced by neuroscientists. Recent work in neuroaesthetics has revealed that aesthetic experience with static visual art engages visual, reward and default-mode networks. Very little is known about the temporal dynamics of these networks during aesthetic appreciation. Previous behavioral and brain imaging research suggests that critical aspects of aesthetic experience have slow dynamics, taking more than a few seconds, making them amenable to study with fMRI. Here, we identified key aspects of the dynamics of aesthetic experience while viewing art for various durations. In the first few seconds following image onset, activity in the DMN (and high-level visual and reward regions) was greater for very pleasing images; in the DMN this activity counteracted a suppressive effect that grew longer and deeper with increasing image duration. In addition, for very pleasing art, the DMN response returned to baseline in a manner time-locked to image offset. Conversely, for non-pleasing art, the timing of this return to baseline was inconsistent. This differential response in the DMN may therefore reflect the internal dynamics of the participant’s state: The participant disengages from art-related processing and returns to stimulus-independent thought. These dynamics suggest that the DMN tracks the internal state of a participant during aesthetic experience.

Belfi, A. M., Vessel, E. A., Brielmann, A., Isik, A. I., Chatterjee, A., Leder, H., Pelli, D.G., Starr, G. G. (2019). Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default-mode network. NeuroImage, 188, 584–597.