Beauty Is in the Brain of the Beholder

There are few things more personal than one’s aesthetic taste. When you really connect to a piece of art or music, it touches something deep inside. It moves you in a way that often escapes words. But what’s going on in your brain when you are moved like this?

This question is explored in the recently-published paper, Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. The study, undertaken by researchers from NYU and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, placed 16 participants in fMRI scanners and randomly showed them 109 unknown colored artworks. Study participants were instructed to rate the works, on a scale of 1 to 4, according to how much each piece “moved” them personally. 

While there was no consensus amongst the participants on which pieces of art were most “moving,” the study revealed that when a participant gave a piece of art the highest rating of 4, there was a strong correlation to the activation of that participant’s Default Mode Network (DMN). By contrast, when a participant gave a lower rating between 1 and 3, this corresponded to a suppression of that participant’s DMN. Because each participant responded favorably and negatively to different pieces of art, the researchers were able to identify the connection between each individual’s aesthetic experience and DMN activation or suppression.

The connection between aesthetic experience and the DMN is significant because the DMN is closely linked to one’s sense of self.

Recent research has found that the DMN is suppressed when observers are engaged in demanding tasks that require them to focus on external stimuli, but becomes more active during passive viewing or periods of rest. More importantly for this study, the DMN can also become activated by external stimuli that cause inwardly focused attention, or cause people to draw on self-referential information. According to the authors, the DMN is “emerging as a highly interconnected network of brain regions that support self-referential mental processing.”

The correlation between highly rated artwork and DMN activation suggests that certain pieces of art “resonate” with an individual’s sense of self, and that this resonance can be identified through a well-defined physiological response. The authors believe that neural representations of the highly rated art obtained access to the neural substrates and processes concerned with the self. It is possible that these highly resonant representations could interact with, and affect, these neural processes. This raises the possibility that highly resonant external stimuli could influence evolving representations of the self, and that these resonant experiences could be more prevalent in everyday life than previously recognized in the lab setting.


Vessel EA, Starr GG and Rubin N (2013). Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. Front. Neurosci. 7:258. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2013.00258

Image via AZP Worldwide / Shutterstock.

Jesse Bisignano, MA

Jesse Bisignano, MA, is a freelance writer. He studied political science at Vassar College and International Development at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies at the University of Geneva.
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