Neuroaesthetics: How the Brain Responds to Art | ARTSMH (2024)



Neuroaesthetics is an emerging interdisciplinary field combining neuroscience, psychology and the arts to understand the neural correlates of aesthetic experiences such as art and beauty (Pearce et al., 2016). Neuroaesthetics was first coined by Semir Zeki, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, who describes artists as neuroscientists in disguise, exploring the potential and capacity of the brain through employing different creative techniques (Zeki, 2001). He proposed two laws concerning the way in which artists may subconsciously utilise the mechanisms of the visual brain: constancy and abstraction.


Constancy refers to the function of the visual brain in “seek[ing] knowledge of the constant and essential properties of objects”; knowledge concerning the consistencies of the visual phenomenon is retained whilst dynamic properties are filtered out. Similarly, the process of painting an established subject matter involves filtering out details which are not recognised as consistencies to produce a static representation, differing from what is perceived directly by the eyes in motion. As opposed to deconstructing the image, the brain engages with the idea and feeling of the subject matter captured by the artwork. Observed phenomena do not exist outside of the brain and are perceived only in relation to existing beliefs and concepts; artists only need to capture the essence of the object by depicting its consistent features. An example of this is the recognition of faces from different angles, where the perception of the main consistencies of facial features, such as general shape and location, can produce the idea of a face despite excluding other details.


Abstraction defines the process of forming established categories called ‘abstractions’ through inductively collecting similarities and patterns in constituent data. Therefore, such generalisations can be applied to particular instances in a deductive manner, allowing the brain to process visual stimuli such as artwork. Basic abstractions include colour and shape , which are used to develop subjective, semantic abstractions such as the ideas associated with such sensory perceptions (Aviv, 2014). Artists can convey or challenge these abstractions to evoke certain feelings in those who experience the artwork. The detailed mechanism defining the relationship between abstract art and the brain is not as known to neuroscience, as is the difference between the underlying mechanisms of the perception of abstract and representational art.

Associated brain regions

The neural basis of how art is perceived and experienced has been studied through employing various neuroimaging techniques, notably fMRI scans. Aesthetic experiences heavily rely on processing within the visual centres such as the V1 cortex; activity within this area is regulated by perceptual context, displaying correlation with aspects of visual awareness, attention and perceptual organisation (Lamme et al., 2000). In addition, the visual brain consists of several processing pathways specialising in factors such as colour or shape (Cela-Conde et al., 2004).

A study by Kawabata and Zeki (2004) using fMRI scans found that the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC) was strongly activated across all participants when a painting was perceived as beautiful. A significantly lower activation level of the OFC was observed when the painting was seen as ugly, and an intermediate activation level was produced when the painting was viewed as neutral. Emotions play a large role in the experience of aesthetic stimuli due to the personal and subjective nature of perception. When asked to review artwork subjectively, as opposed to passively observing, participants displayed significantly high activation in the bilateral insula, attributed to its role in emotional regulation and expression (Cupchik, 2009). This may demonstrate the application of empathy and personal engagement when interpreting the meaning of an artwork. However, such inferences cannot be made from observing brain activity alone.


Neuroaesthetics is a unique field aspiring to determine the neural correlates of what are deemed to be some of the most fundamental yet inexplicable features of our human experience. Zeki hopes that the neural basis of “creativity and achievement” and “religious belief” will be uncovered, as well as “the relation between morality, jurisprudence, and brain function” (Zeki, 2001). The contemplation of our most personal, subjective experiences drives the uncertainty of the extent to which they are based upon unique neural mechanisms attributed to our life experiences, as opposed to possessing a universal neural basis: a question that neuroaesthetics seeks to answer.

Watch to learn - Semir Zeki on Neuroaesthetics


Aviv, V. (2014). What does the brain tell us about abstract art? Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 85.

Cela-Conde, C. J., Marty, G., Maestú, F., Ortiz, T., Munar, E., Fernández, A., Roca, M., Rosselló, J., & Quesney, F. (2004). Activation of the prefrontal cortex in the human visual aesthetic perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(16), 6321–6325. https://doi:10.1073/pnas.0401427101

Cupchik, G. C. (2009). Viewing artworks: Contributions of cognitive control and perceptual facilitation to aesthetic experience. Brain and Cognition, 70(1), 84–91. https://doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2009.01.003

Kawabata, H. & Zeki, S. (2004). Neural correlates of beauty. Journal of Neurophysiology, 91(4), 1699–1705. https://doi:10.1152/jn.00696.2003

Lamme, V.A., Supèr, H., Landman, R., Roelfsema, P.R. & Spekreijse, H. (2000). The role of primary visual cortex (V1) in visual awareness. Vision Research, 40(10-12), 1507-1521.

Pearce, M.T., Zaidel, D.W., Vartanian, O., Skov, M., Leder, H., Chatterjee, A. & Nadal, M. (2016). Neuroaesthetics: The cognitive neuroscience of aesthetic experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(2), 265-279.

Zeki, S. (2001). Artistic creativity and the brain. Science. 293(5527), 51–52.

Neuroaesthetics: How the Brain Responds to Art  | ARTSMH (2024)


How does the brain respond to art? ›

Art also triggers a response in our brain's reward system. The act of creating stimulates dopamine production, providing us with a sense of pleasure and motivation to continue our artistic endeavor.

What is the theory of neuroaesthetics? ›

Neuroaesthetics investigates performing arts as an expressive art that incorporates motor and emotional responses, as well as the typically studied cognitive processes of creativity (divergent, convergent, and insight) (Brattico & Pearce, 2013). The term neuroaesthetics appeared in the last decade of the 20th century.

What is an example of a Neuroaesthetic? ›

Descriptive neuroaesthetics refers to the practice of mapping properties of the brain onto aesthetic experiences. For example, if color is important to the experience of Fauvist art, then it is likely that areas of the brain that process color will be engaged when looking at such art.

What brain measurement technique was used in the How does the brain detect art experiment? ›

Recently, neuroscientists and an art historian asked ten subjects to examine the wrist detail from the painting, and—using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)—monitored what happened in their brains.

Is neurographic art scientifically proven? ›

In fact, according to the Vancouver Visual Art Foundation, neurographica has been scientifically validated and proven, and it is one of the most widely used psychological techniques in art therapy today.

What part of the brain controls art? ›

The nondominant inferior parietal lobule is probably a major “store house” of artistic creativity. The ventromedial prefrontal lobe (VMPFL) is supposed to be involved in creative cognition and the dorsolateral prefrontal lobe (DLPFL) in creative output.

Why is neuroaesthetics important? ›

Neuroaesthetics is a fast emerging field in neuroscience where it studies what happens to the brain when expressing and experiencing art in any shape or form. There is surmounting research that shows how art can deliver potent health, well-being and longevity benefits.

What is the neuroscience behind attraction? ›

Chemicals in your brain create feelings of desire, pleasure and connection. Dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine help determine if you are initially attracted to someone. Oxytocin and other chemicals help form bonds and reshape your brain when you are in love.

Who coined the term neuroaesthetics? ›

This study of the intersection of brain sciences and the arts was first coined “neuroaesthetics” in the late 1990s by Semir Zeki, renowned neuroscientist and professor at the University College of London.

How does the brain perceive beauty? ›

The leading theory is that we're hardwired to appreciate forms and patterns that are pervasive in nature, such as fractals, the Golden Ratio and symmetry, because they helped our ancestors survive. A symmetrical face, for instance, suggests good health and strong genes in a potential mate.

What is the discipline of Neuroaesthetics reading answers? ›

Neuroaesthetics is an emerging discipline seeking to bring scientific objectivity to the study of art, and has already given us a better understanding of many masterpieces. For instance the brain's amygdala seems to be stimulated by the blurred imagery of impressionist paintings.

What is an example of shaping in real life? ›

In practice, shaping takes place in all forms of behavioral training, but can be most easily observed with pets. It could be getting a pet used to riding in a car or training them to take a bath. The process is the same.

Does creating art release dopamine? ›

Studies also show that creating art stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical that tells us something is pleasurable—basically it makes us feel happier. Increased levels of this “feel-good” neurotransmitter can be particularly helpful if you are battling anxiety or depression.

How does the brain analyze images? ›

Neurons in low level brain regions extract basic features such as line orientation, depth and the color of local image elements. They send the information to several mid-level brain areas. Neurons in these areas code for other features, such as motion direction, color and shape fragments.

How do we perceive art? ›

Several basic visual factors like symmetry, complexity, contrast, curvature, color, and lines can influence aesthetic experiences of simple patterns, but also of artworks.

How does the brain react to images? ›

When we see an image, we analyse it within a very short time, give the image meaning and embed it in a context. The human brain is able to recognise a familiar object within 100 milliseconds. A study by the renowned MIT estimates that as little as 13 milliseconds are sufficient to recognise even unfamiliar images.

How does the brain work when drawing? ›

We can absorb information by simply listening, seeing images, or reading words, but drawing brings out a multi-modal reinforcement that forces our brain to use that input in a new way. Drawing involves the imagination and forces our brains to create a mental image of a subject or idea in our brains.

What part of the brain appreciates art? ›

An area in the front of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is responsible for assigning a subjective value to them. Basically, the brain breaks a piece of art down into its essential qualities, and then decides whether those qualities are pleasing or not.

How does art heal the mind? ›

Art can harness the healing power within each of us and help bring us into community with one another. In the presence of art, we may experience inspiration, wonder, and even hope; it can spark our imagination, creativity, and thinking.

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