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What Should We Expect from the New Aesthetic Sciences?
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Vincent Bergeron

As William Seeley reminds us in his article (this issue), the scientific study of aesthetics can be traced back to the beginning of experimental psychology and the work of Gustav Theodor Fechner in the second half of the nineteenth century. Among other things, Fechner showed that certain abstract forms and proportions are naturally pleasing to our senses. For example, he conducted experiments to show that a rectangle is most pleasing when its side lengths are in the golden ratio of approximately 1:1.618. He argued that the empirical study of aesthetics must proceed from the bottom up, where aesthetic concepts and principles are assembled from individual pieces of objective knowledge. This approach, which he called “aesthetics from below” contrasted sharply with what he called “aesthetics from above” (or philosophical aesthetics) in which knowledge of aesthetic phenomena was derived primarily from conceptual and introspective analysis.

Continuing in Fechner’s footsteps, experimental psychologists in the second half of the last century have identified a wide range of factors influencing our aesthetic responses. For example, they have shown that our judgments of aesthetic preference and our feeling of aesthetic pleasure are governed by stimulus symmetry, complexity, novelty, and familiarity, among other factors.[1]

Given the long history of empirical aesthetics, there can be no doubt that this field of study has made a significant contribution to our understanding of at least some aspects of aesthetic response. This contribution extends beyond the early findings that were obtained using simple or ordinary objects (e.g., geometrical shapes and human faces), to recent studies that use artworks as stimuli. But to what extent can empirical studies further understanding of our aesthetic engagement with artworks?

One way of answering this question is to reflect on the goal of aesthetic science. The psychologist Rolf Reber recently suggested that “art theorists… define the criterion of what the [aesthetic] experience is expected to be; scientists… provide a test of whether this criterion is fulfilled.”[2] Or consider the case of neuroaesthetics. This new branch of empirical aesthetics is often defined as the study of the neural processes underlying aesthetic experience. In other words, the job of neuroaestheticians is to discover where and how the different components of our aesthetic responses are implemented in the brain. If this is all we can expect from neuroaesthetics (or aesthetic science in general), then perhaps there is cause for skepticism about the utility of empirical aesthetics to researchers in the humanities. But is this all it has to offer?

Jerry Fodor once made the following remark about the idea that neuroscience, and functional neuroimaging data in particular, might help us understand how the mind works:

It isn’t, after all, seriously in doubt that talking (or riding a bicycle, or building a bridge) depends on things that go on in the brain somewhere or other. If the mind happens in space at all, it happens somewhere north of the neck. What exactly turns on knowing how far north? It belongs to understanding how the engine in your auto works that the functioning of its carburetor is to aerate the petrol; that’s part of the story about how the engine’s parts contribute to its running right. But why (unless you’re thinking of having it taken out) does it matter where in the engine the carburetor is? What part of how your engine works have you failed to understand if you don’t know that?[3]

What, indeed, has a philosopher or an art critic failed to understand about our aesthetic appreciation of a Picasso if she doesn’t know, for example, that the colors and shapes on the canvas are processed in distinct areas of the brain? Of course, there are many things about our aesthetic responses to artworks that philosophers and art critics still don’t understand. However, knowledge of where and how some specific elements of our aesthetic responses are implemented in the brain is unlikely to give us a fuller understanding of what these responses actually are.

This kind of reasoning, however, misrepresents the goal of neuroscientific research, and not just in the case of neuroaesthetics, but cognitive neuroscience in general. It is certainly true that a great deal of research in cognitive neuroscience is concerned with the mapping of perceptual and cognitive functions in the brain, but it would be a mistake to see this as the primary goal of this research.

Part of the problem has to do with the way neuroimaging findings are reported, and especially in the media. Major newspapers and popular scientific publications often report that scientists have identified the “neural correlates” of a particular cognitive function X (e.g., face recognition, speech versus music perception, the belief in God), and that this finding may have implications for our understanding of X. Science reporters (and their readers) tend to prefer pretty images of colored brains to more detailed analyses of the data. It is therefore not surprising that many readers come to the conclusion that neuroimaging experiments are primarily concerned with localizing X in the brain as opposed to explaining and defining X. This is unfortunate, as neuroimaging data often suggest new ways of understanding particular cognitive functions.

To illustrate this point, consider the recent proposal by David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese that sensorimotor processes, in the form of action simulations, may be an essential element of our aesthetic responses to visual artworks (paintings, drawings, sculptures).[4] Their proposal capitalizes on the discovery of the mirror-neuron system, the set of brain areas that contain neurons that fire both when someone performs an action (e.g., reaching for a cup) and when the same person observes the same action performed by someone else. Just like in the case of action observation (dynamic case), the idea is that one could hypothesize that the mirror-neuron system would be activated when someone observes the depiction of actions in a painting or sculpture (static case). Building on this, they further hypothesize (more surprisingly perhaps) that the mirror-neuron system might also be activated in response to non-figurative works in which the various marks left by the artist’s handling of the artistic medium (e.g., brush strokes) can be related to the implicit artistic movements that went into the production of the work.

Both hypotheses have now received some level of empirical support from various neuroimaging studies,[5] which suggests that in aesthetic perception, “our brains can reconstruct actions by merely observing the static graphic outcome of an agent’s past action.” Moreover, these findings demonstrate how neuroimaging data can contribute to a deeper understanding of our aesthetic engagement with artworks. Notice here that the empirical investigation of the sensorimotor dimension of aesthetic perception relies on previous knowledge of the localization of brain function – in this case it relies on the identification of the mirror-neuron system – and that it is on the basis of that knowledge that the hypotheses can be tested. It is therefore clear from this example that the utility of neuroimaging data is not limited to knowing where and how this component of aesthetic response is implemented in the brain. Such data may in fact help answer important questions about the extent to which the sensorimotor dimension is involved in aesthetic perception, such as the specific manner in which it contributes to aesthetic response, or whether it is a necessary element in certain forms of aesthetic perception, and if so, to what extent is aesthetic appreciation dependent on sensorimotor expertise (e.g., in artists).

Recent findings in the psychology of music perception provide another example of how empirical research may help advance the understanding of how we engage aesthetically with artworks.[6] The studies, which use audio-visual recordings of professional musicians playing short compositions as stimuli, show that visual information combines with auditory information in the perception of musical expression. In one study, for example, Jane Davidson found that vision contributes to the perception of expressive intensity in both violin and piano performances, and perhaps more surprisingly, that the visual component of the stimuli better indicated expressiveness than the auditory component. In another study, Bradley Vines and his collaborators measured the emotion conveyed by two professional clarinetists playing a Stravinsky composition for solo clarinet.[7] Musically trained subjects presented with the performance rated how strongly they perceived the expression of nineteen emotions in four groups – active positive, active negative, passive positive, and passive negative. The researchers found that for at least one group, the active positive, visual experience was the primary channel through which variation in the clarinetists’ performance intentions was conveyed to the observers.

What these findings suggest, in sum, is that the expressive properties of music are a function of both the sounds of a musical performance and the visual movements of the performers. Dominic Lopes and I have argued that this forces us to consider the possibility that music’s expressive properties (e.g., its sadness) may be visual as well as sonic.[8] Or more precisely, if music expresses what we think it does, then its expressive properties may be visual as well as sonic. The alternative appears less interesting: if music’s expressive properties are purely sonic, then it expresses less than we think it does.

What, then, can we conclude from these two examples of research in the aesthetic sciences? Perhaps they show that when it comes to research on aesthetic response, a collaboration between the different scientific and humanistic studies should not be a division of labor wherein researchers in the humanities define the nature of aesthetic response, leaving scientists to discover the mechanisms by which it is realized. They suggest, in fact, that the aesthetic sciences should take an integral part, along with philosophers, art critics and historians, in the development of a richer and fuller understanding of our aesthetic engagement with artworks.


1. See T. Jacobsen, “Bridging the Arts and Sciences: a Framework for the Psychology of Aesthetics,” Leonardo, 39(2), 2006, 155-162 for a brief overview of the literature.

2. R. Reber, “Art in Its Experience: Can Empirical Psychology Help Assess Artistic Value?” Leonardo 41 (4), 2008, 367 – 72, p. 367.

3. J. Fodor, “Let your Brain Alone,” London Review of Books, 21(19), 1999.

4. D. Freedberg and V. Gallese, “Motion, Emotion and Empathy in Aesthetic Experience,” Trends in Cognitive Science, 11(5), 2007, 197-203.

5. For a review of this literature see C. Di Dio and V. Gallese, “Neuroaesthetics: a Review,” Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 19, 2009, 682-87.

6. J. Davidson, “Visual Perception of Performance Manner in the Movements of Solo Musicians,” Psychology of Music 21, 1993, 103-12; Bradley Vines, Carol Krumhansl, Marcelo Wanderly, Ioana Dalca, and Daniel Levitin, “Dimensions of Emotion in Expressive Musical Performance,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1060, 2005, 462-66; Bradley Vines, Carol Krumhansl, Marcelo Wanderly, and Daniel Levitin, “Cross-modal Interactions in the Perception of Musical Performance,” Cognition 101, 2006, 80-113.

7. Vines et al., “Dimensions of Emotion in Expressive Musical Performance.”

8. V. Bergeron and D. Lopes, “Hearing and Seeing Musical Expression,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 78(1), 2009, 1-16.

2011 © Vincent Bergeron

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