A Connection between Sense of Beauty and Sense of Self

Neuroscience research connects sense of self & other with aesthetic experience.

Posted Sep 09, 2019

"It is a revenge the devil sometimes takes upon the virtuous, that he entraps them by the force of the very passion they have suppressed and think themselves superior to." —George Santayana

When we are truly moved by beauty, we drink up the experience at the core of our being. We feel it in our bones, in our guts, in our hearts, in our muscles, with trembling, with utter silence—and with an accompanying intellectual experience which has no rival. At its strongest, we can feel this experience transcendent, spiritual, or religious on cosmic as well as deeply personal levels, as bonding between soulmates, a parent and child, or the best of friends.

Tomwsulcer/WikiMedia Commons
Source: Tomwsulcer/WikiMedia Commons

Aesthetic Experiences Make Us Who We Are

Prior research on the neurobiology of beauty has been directed at identifying which brain areas and brain networks may be involved. From a neuroscientific perspective, there are several important areas of interest, as researchers Vessel and colleagues (2019), whose recent work is reported below, discuss.

How does the brain construct visual aesthetic experiences, or music versus visual art, or architecture versus landscape? How does the brain distinguish the general experience of aesthetic appreciation from different kinds of beautiful imagery? 

How are gradations of aesthetic appreciation processed in the brain, from more subtle pleasure, with perhaps a wry grin, to reality-shattering experiences that change our very being? 

Highly rewarding experiences motivate behavior and can be compelling, even addicting. But powerful aesthetic experiences don't necessarily lead to behavioral change. We tire, for example, if we spend too much time looking at art. Where aesthetic appreciation overlaps with other motivational systems, such as the attachment system, the reward can kick in with a vengeance—as we see with love—star-crossed, jealousy, sexual obsession, soulmates, or otherwise.

Prior Research on the Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience

Research, like Vessel, Isik, Belfi, Stahl, and Starr (2019) note, suggests that aesthetic experience is processed in key areas of the brain, notably in the default mode network (DMN), which sustains the brain’s state when doing nothing in particular. Aesthetic experience also involves areas of the ventral occipitotemporal cortex (VOT), which processes an array of visual and spatial information.

Prior analyses, researchers report, either smaller or less reliable meta-analyses, have paved the way for more specific research by identifying interesting regions for further study. For instance, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex (vMPFC, ACC, and parts of the DMN), activate in response to both music and visual art.  

Regions of the MPFC (both vMPFC and aMPFC, noted below) are involved in self-referential and social information processing. So it makes sense that deeply moving aesthetic experiences would involve core social and self-referential brain networks. Especially 'cause attraction to others and love of oneself is so core to mating, making it an evolutionary sine qua non.

However, other studies of different types of experiences (visual, gustatory, aromatic, auditory) did not find an overlap in these regions, instead seeing activity in the anterior insula, a region involved in empathy and pain perception.

An additional study found that viewing particularly beautiful paintings was associated with the release or suppression of the anteromedial prefrontal cortex (aMPFC). Usually, this region’s activity is shut down by focal attention—great beauty releases this hold, allowing the aMPFC to be more active. The aMPFC "is involved in evaluative judgment and self-referential processes," suggesting that when one is very moved by art, it comes back online to link perception with emotion and appraisal.

Building a Better Research Protocol

In order to refine the understanding of the neurobiology of visual aesthetic experiencing, Vessel and colleagues designed a study to answer some of the open questions from prior research. A total of 16 participants completed an MRI study in which they were presented with a series of images representing visual art, architecture, and natural landscapes. 

The visual art comprised of 148 photographs of paintings, textiles, and collage, covering a wide range of styles and periods. The architecture sample consisted of 148 interior and exterior shots of various types of buildings and styles, materials and time periods.

There were 148 landscapes as well, similarly diverse. The image categories were chosen to highlight different yet overlapping aspects of visual aesthetic experience, from emotional to intellectual, from human-made to naturally occurring, from representational to literal, from abstract to concrete, and so on.

Participants were shown images while getting scanned in the MRI during two sittings. In each one, they were shown a selection of images and asked to report how “moving” they found each image to be.

In each of the two sessions, participants had six scans in each of 37 trials, so that each person had 148 scans total with an assortment of images from each domain. They rated their experience after each image presentation with a trackball and on-screen slider ranging from a low (L) to high (H) sense of being subjectively moved1.

Each participant's DMN and VOT was scanned and mapped, both on a macro level and a granular level, for different brain regions. The imaging data were correlated with the highest and lowest aesthetic response categories (i.e., the high-end and low-end responses were compared, after filtering out middling reactions), and compared across the three different image categories.

Is Aesthetic Sense at the Core of Identity and Relationship?

Regardless of whether viewing art, architecture, or natural landscapes, being strongly moved during visual aesthetic experiencing was associated with unique patterns of DMN activity. As the study authors note, “[T]here is strong evidence that the DMN contains a representation of aesthetic appeal that is domain-general.”

This is an important finding, as it not only tells us about the neurobiology of aesthetic experience but also that it is intricately intermingled with the same brain network which regulates our foundational sense of self and others. It suggests that on a fundamental level, aesthetic experience (in this study, visual aesthetic experience in particular) is an integral part of who we are individually and socially.

Subregions within the DMN associated with general aesthetic response included the aMPFC, dMPFC, and IPL (inferior parietal lobule2). On the other hand, the VOT did not correlate strongly with a general aesthetic response but was associated with domain-specific responses.

In other words, the VOT was responsive to different image categories—art, architecture, and natural landscape. Responses to the class of image were also found for natural landscapes—associated with activity in visual pathways (ventral visual pathways, specifically)—and responses to architecture and art, in inferior and orbital frontal cortices.

What Does It Mean?

Study authors note that the DMN is critical for engagement with artwork and visual aesthetic experience, shifting our core sense of self to “lock on” to beautiful visual presentations and representations. While this study does not prove that the DMN is exclusively involved in the emotional component of the aesthetic experience, it is a key part of the puzzle. Future research tying DMN activity with the limbic system (involved with emotional response) will be central.

Grasping how the DMN is core to both aesthetic appreciation and our basic sense of self (and others) elucidates how and why we are figuratively transfixed, spellbound, even literally captivated when we are powerfully moved by something we see which evokes a sense of great beauty and awe.

Behavioral (motor) systems connected to the DMN, which integrates brain systems in a top-down way, may be involuntarily recruited, holding us still and speechless, keeping us from moving off or even averting our eyes from the object of beauty.

According to the classics, beauty's enchantments can lead to perdition, even starting a war, as Helen's did in Homer's Iliad. Competition to possess her beauty (in reality, probably politics and not "the face that launched a thousand ships") started the Trojan War:

There's nothing shameful about the fact
that Trojans and well-armed Achaeans
have endured great suffering a long time
over such a woman—just like a goddess,
immortal, awe-inspiring. She's beautiful.
But nonetheless let her go back with the ships.

What Beauty and Horror Have in Common

Let's speculate whether as with great beauty, awe and love, other strong emotions, may also engage the DMN and related networks so as to brain-jack us. Strong emotion—including dread, terror, horror, shame, and disgust—transfixes, providing a biological basis for the preternatural power of mesmerizing vampires and mythical beings and beasts, like the Medusa and basilisks, whose gaze when met turns one to stone.

Could there be evolutionary explanations for such reactions, or is it a stretch? Perhaps being temporarily frozen, while presenting a risk of being caught, might also allow us to rest for a moment alone and in good company, in rapt concentration and full appreciation. More basically, freezing allows us to remain unseen by predators scanning for movement.

On the attachment side is the sense of appreciation for oneself—healthy narcissism—and for others as well, hardwired into our DMN, because to thrive, it is necessary to love oneself and others? 

The Crucial Nature of Aesthetic Experience

Perhaps aesthetic appreciation lies at the heart of compassion, gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and communion—of devotion and surrender. Similar activity may be at the heart of religious experience, as well as addiction and destructive obsession.

Worship involves a potent aesthetic experience. Understanding the brain on awe is more important now than ever, in the face of violent extremism. Learning how to appreciate one another is the key to our species' survival.

Future research with robust methods is needed to clarify the aesthetics of diverse sensory modalities, including not just visual but also auditory (music, other pleasing sounds), movement (dance, sport), literary, tactile, sensual, gustatory, and others—as well as the fearsome-yet-awesome experiences which draw us like moths to the flame.


1. The experiment was designed to eliminate the effect of direction of hand movement or image order, so for example images were presented in different ways to average out across participants, and the direction for the L-H slider was changed so that hand movement direction washed out across trials. All images were adjusted so that differences in contrast and color were evened-out to prevent bias of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) data acquisition.

2. The IPL is a “multimodal” brain region, one of the last to mature in developing human beings, located at the junction between visual, auditory and somatosensory areas. It is thought to be involved in many core brain functions, including have key roles in language, emotion perception, and classification and labeling of things, in addition to other functions. https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_10/i_10_cr/i_10_cr_lan/i_10_cr_lan.html