Can Aesthetic Pleasure Be an Antidote to Addiction?

Aesthetic pleasure vs. appetitive desire.

Posted Oct 29, 2018

Sandro Botticelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Sandro Botticelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is the aesthetic pleasure we get from art and music is any different from the pleasure we get from eating chocolate, drugs, or sex? If so, can they be substitutes? Aesthetics focuses on properties of objects and our emotional reactions to those properties (Leddy, 2012). Beautiful objects simply lay in the eyes of beholders. In what way is the pleasure provoked by art different from the pleasure induced by food, sex, or drugs? 

1.     Addiction leads to poor decision-making. Pleasure is known to be a powerful motivator of human behavior. Pleasure-oriented activities (e.g., palatable foods, drinks, and games) encourage us to repeat them to gain rewards. But, in excess, such activities might have negative effects on our well-being. Chronic use leads to problematic decision making. We lose the freedom of choice and become a prisoner in our own brain, just as in the addicted brain.

2.     Pleasure for pleasure's sake. Pleasure ‘for pleasure's sake’ behavior is the hallmark of a problematic behavior in drug addiction. The person is oblivious to any long-term implications of their behavior and would do anything to obtain the next pleasure. An example is when eating food is purely driven by the motivation to experience pleasure, regardless of its nutritional contents. The long-term consequence of imbalanced diet can be eating disordersobesity, and type 2 diabetes.

3.     The pleasure of anticipation. There is a special delight in rewards that we are not expecting. Dopamine is released where there is a big difference between the rewards we are expecting and the rewards we actually get. More dopamine is released to unexpected rewards. Unpredictable events (e.g., receiving a text message, seeing something that we like on social media, or winning a gamble) cause pleasurable chills.

4.     Liking without wanting. Art gives us joy and chocolate gives us pleasure. The joy happens without the impulse to own or consume the object. Craving in addiction is a painful state of wanting, similar to hunger. Craving deprives the individual of their willpower to resist.

5.     Appetitive pleasure is short-lived. Aesthetic pleasure differs from physical pleasures (drinks, pornography, or games). We tire less quickly of artworks at one sitting than of most of the pleasures we physically consume. Calories or sex—unhealthy ones, in particular—leave you feeling mostly empty afterward, whereas a piece of art may open up a whole new perspective of looking at things.

6.     Self-transcendent experience. The emotional rewards of aesthetic experiences go far beyond the simple pleasures of our basic appetites.  Art not only gives us aesthetic pleasure, but also something more: an increased understanding about the world outside ourselves. Art and music provoke contemplation and reflection on meaning. We are deeply moved by the genius of the writing and the precision of amazing music. The transcendent wonder we experience in the presence of beauty is fundamentally different from the brief pleasure we get from consuming a candy bar.

7.     The experience of flow. Mastering or understanding an artwork is a pleasurable experience, engaging similar brain mechanisms as in rare ‘aha moments’ when we suddenly solve a problem. This moment of understanding is similar to the concept of ‘flow.’ The concept of flow is described as a situation or state of mind in which we are optimally connected to the activity and where personal skills and the task difficulty are in perfect balance.

8.     One has to learn to see art. Education and culture profoundly influence our experience of art. There is no art module in the brain (Chaterjee, 2014). However, our sensitivity (taste) for art could be nurtured with careful observation and education. In contrast, we are genetically programmed to crave fat, salt, sugar, and so on.

9.     Can they be substitutes? Can aesthetic pleasure be an antidote to addictive pleasure? There is increasing evidence that the aesthetic pleasure from art and music is no different in origin and function from the pleasure induced by food, drugs, and sex (Nadal & Skov, 2013). Art invokes the same pleasure as food or sex. For example, listening to highly pleasurable music can induce dopamine release in the same part of the brain as drugs of abuse (Walter, 2015). If the pleasure from art is no different than the pleasure from drugs, then one can substitute one for another (Christensen, 2017). If the high is the same, then getting it from a safer and more refined source should be even more obvious. The research on the role of aesthetic appreciation in addiction recovery is a promising avenue because it has the potential to provide a less costly treatment option.


Chatterjee Anjan (2014) The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. Oxford University Press,

Christensen Julia (2017), Pleasure junkies all around! Why it matters and why ‘the arts’ might be the answer: a biopsychological perspective, Proceedings of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences, 17;284(1854).

Leddy, Thomas (2012), The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: the Aesthetics of Everyday Life, Peterborough: Broadview Press.

Mathis, W (2015), The Neuroscientific Basis for Aesthetic Preference as an Intervention for Drug Craving Associated with Addiction, J Addict Res Ther, 6:1.

Nadal, M., & Skov, M. (2013). Introduction to the special issue: Toward an interdisciplinary neuroaesthetics. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7, 1–12.