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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Neuroaesthetics and art's diversity and universality

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There is a duality to art. It is enormously varied and culturally diverse, and yet it is also universal, common to all humans. Art's variability and distinctiveness seem to elude science, better equipped to account for constant or regular phenomena. We believe that art's cultural particularity can be reconciled with its biological universality. The emergence of variability and distinctiveness from common mechanisms is at the core of biological explanation; it is a basic fact of life, and a basic fact of brain function. The individual, cultural, and historical diversity of art, both in its production and its appreciation, owe to basic features of the organization and function of the human brain. Each encounter with an artwork engages flexible neural networks that are modulated by context, expectations, emotional states, goals, and experience. Because these factors change from one occasion to another, each encounter with art has its distinct flavor. Repeated encounters with art over the course of a lifetime lead people develop personal preferences for art, as the network connections become strengthened in unique ways. These flexible and adaptable networks evolved in humans as a consequence of the relaxation of genetic constraints on the development of brain regions involved in orchestrating network dynamics, enabling a greater impact of learning and experience. In sum, art is universal and common because it arises from neural systems that are common to all humans, and it is variable and diverse because those neural systems evolved to be flexible, attuned to momentary contexts and goals, and changing through a lifetime of experiences.

This article is categorized under:

  • Economics > Individual Decision‐Making
  • Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition
  • Neuroscience > Cognition
Simplified representation of the modular structure of the brain. (a) Illustration of four different modules (in orange) with specialized functions. High‐level hubs that constitute the centralized core linking the modules are shown in blue. (b) Functional segregation is achieved by coupling neural activity within modules, with little information shared across modules. (c) Functional integration is achieved by global coupling with information flow across modules, shown in blue. (Reprinted with permission from Sporns () Copyright 2013 Elsevier)
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White Rumped Munia (a) and Bengalese Finch (b). Images from Wikimedia Commons and under the Creative Commons license
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The aesthetic triad: Neural systems contributing to emergent aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experiences are emergent states, arising from interactions between sensory‐motor, emotion‐valuation, and meaning‐knowledge neural systems. (Reprinted with permission from Chatterjee and Vartanian () Copyright 2014 Elsevier)
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Illustration of the flexible biological mechanisms that give rise to unique experiences of art appreciation or creation, distinct personal preferences or styles, and diverse art traditions
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Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition
Neuroscience > Cognition
Economics > Individual Decision-Making

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