CognitionJournalMotivation and EmotionNeural Excitability, Synapses, and GliaSensory Systems

The default-mode network represents aesthetic appeal that generalizes across visual domains

Patterns of activity the brain’s “default-mode network” code for whether an image is aesthetically appealing regardless of aesthetic domain (architecture, landscape, artwork).

Visual aesthetic evaluations, which impact decision-making and well-being, recruit the ventral visual pathway, subcortical reward circuitry, and parts of the medial prefrontal cortex overlapping with the default-mode network (DMN). However, it is unknown whether these networks represent aesthetic appeal in a domain-general fashion, independent of domain-specific representations of stimulus content (artworks versus architecture or natural landscapes). Using a classification approach, we tested whether the DMN or ventral occipitotemporal cortex (VOT) contains a domain-general representation of aesthetic appeal. Classifiers were trained on multivoxel functional MRI response patterns collected while observers made aesthetic judgments about images from one aesthetic domain. Classifier performance (high vs. low aesthetic appeal) was then tested on response patterns from held-out trials from the same domain to derive a measure of domain-specific coding, or from a different domain to derive a measure of domain-general coding. Activity patterns in category-selective VOT contained a degree of domain-specific information about aesthetic appeal, but did not generalize across domains. Activity patterns from the DMN, however, were predictive of aesthetic appeal across domains. Importantly, the ability to predict aesthetic appeal varied systematically; predictions were better for observers who gave more extreme ratings to images subsequently labeled as “high” or “low.” These findings support a model of aesthetic appreciation whereby domain-specific representations of the content of visual experiences in VOT feed in to a “core” domain-general representation of visual aesthetic appeal in the DMN. Whole-brain “searchlight” analyses identified additional prefrontal regions containing information relevant for appreciation of cultural artifacts (artwork and architecture) but not landscapes.


Vessel,E.A., Isik, A.I., Belfi, A.M., Stahl, J. L., and Starr, G. G. (2019) The default-mode network represents aesthetic appeal that generalizes across visual domains. PNAS.
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