Neural Correlates of Visual Aesthetics – Beauty as the Coalescence of Stimulus and Internal State
How do external stimuli and our internal state coalesce to create the distinctive aesthetic pleasures that give vibrance to human experience? Neuroaesthetics has so far focused on the neural correlates of observing beautiful stimuli compared to neutral or ugly stimuli, or on neural correlates of judging for beauty as opposed to other judgments. Our group questioned whether this approach is sufficient. In our view, a brain region that assesses beauty should show beauty-level-dependent activation during the beauty judgment task, but not during other, unrelated tasks. We therefore performed an fMRI experiment in which subjects judged visual textures for beauty, naturalness and roughness. Our focus was on finding brain activation related to the rated beauty level of the stimuli, which would take place exclusively during the beauty judgment. An initial whole-brain analysis did not reveal such interactions, yet a number of the regions showing main effects of the judgment task or the beauty level of stimuli were selectively sensitive to beauty level during the beauty task. Of the regions that were more active during beauty judgments than roughness judgments, the frontomedian cortex and the amygdala demonstrated the hypothesized interaction effect, while the posterior cingulate cortex did not. The latter region, which only showed a task effect, may play a supporting role in beauty assessments, such as attending to one's internal state rather than the external world. Most of the regions showing interaction effects of judgment and beauty level correspond to regions that have previously been implicated in aesthetics using different stimulus classes, but based on either task or beauty effects alone. The fact that we have now shown that task-stimulus interactions are also present during the aesthetic judgment of visual textures implies that these areas form a network that is specifically devoted to aesthetic assessment, irrespective of the stimulus type.