Art and the self

How is it that art moves us? What is happening when we react to the aesthetic in our lives? Vessel, Starr and Rubin (citation below) used fMRI and some specifically chosen paintings to investigate the aesthetic experience.


They wanted to separate the experience of being moved by art from the sensory stimuli of art, so that they could look at the highly personal part of appreciation. To do this they assembled a set of over a 100 images of paintings hanging in art museums/galleries (and therefore agreed to be ‘art’) but that had not had a great deal of public exposure so that they were new to the subjects. They also insured that they had a wide range of dates, styles, methods etc. because they wanted the subjects to differ somewhat in the pictures they were moved by. The subjects were shown all the pictures in random order, during fMRI scanning. They were asked to rate each picture in terms of how much it ‘moved them’. They rated the images 1 to 4 with 4 being the most moving, but they were not given any detailed instruction on criteria for the rating except just the idea of ‘how much the piece of art moved them’.


The results showed that subjects were making highly personal assessments. Paintings that got 4s also got 1s; ratings were not highly coordinated. There were less 4s then would be expected in comparison to similar rating experiments, as if the subjects were reserving a 4 for a somewhat special reaction. There were three patterns in the fMRI recordings. There were areas that showed no difference in activity for different ratings. For example, the activity in the visual cortex was more or less the same for a 1,2,3 or 4 rated picture. There were areas that showed a linear change with rating. The occipitotemporal cortex and some subcortical areas showed this linear rise in activity with the rating. Most interestingly there were some areas in the anterior cortex where there was a jump in activity between the 1,2 and 3 ratings and the 4 ratings. It seemed that only the paintings rated 4 activated these areas. This may have been the special criteria that explained why 4s were slightly rarer than expected. They were more a difference in kind than degree.


What were the functions of the areas identified by the scans? They were areas associated with the default mode network. As the task for subjects in the scanner was a ‘task’ that involved attention to external stimuli, it would be assumed the the default mode network would have deactivated. The default mode involves self-referential activity rather than activity driven by external inputs. But this is not a hard and fast rule. Some tasks required particular self-reference and areas of the default mode can be added to the task-positive network. The area of the default mode network that had the most activation (or lack of deactivation) in the 4 rated scans was the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC).


Ventral portions of the MPFC are involved in affective decision making processes, including (but not restricted to) encoding the subjective value of future rewards and assessing the emotional salience of stimuli. The anterior and dorsal portions of MPFC are active in tasks involving self-knowledge such as making judgments about oneself as well as about close others (family and friends), self- relevant moral decision-making and in “theory of mind” tasks that require gauging others’ perspectives .”


And the timing of the MPFC rise in activity is similar to our reaction to our name. “This is reminiscent of the MPFC recovery from deactivation observed when a highly self-relevant stimulus such as one’s own name is presented in a stream of self-irrelevant stimulation, as in the “cocktail party effect”.”


In other words, it was when the picture touched the self-identity of the subject rather than just their reaction to visual stimuli that they had the feeling of being specially moved. And no doubt this is why the ratings of a painting were so individual - why the same painting could get a 1 from one subject and a 4 from another.


We propose that certain artworks can “resonate” with an individual’s sense of self in a manner that has well-defined physiological correlates and consequences: the neural representations of those external stimuli obtain access to the neural substrates and processes concerned with the self—namely to regions of the DMN (default mode network). This access, which other external stimuli normally do not obtain, allows the representation of the artwork to interact with the neural processes related to the self, affect them, and possibly even be incorporated into them (i.e., into the future, evolving representation of self).”


The paper ends with this observation:


…if our self identity is to be influenced by the world we inhabit, it may be that similar moments should occur with greater frequency than would be expected based on the current conceptualization of the DMN as a network that is invariably suppressed during mental activity which is directed at the external world. It may be that our findings are just the “tip of the iceberg”—i.e., that instances of resonance between external stimuli and internal, self-related processing are more commonplace in daily life than what has so far been captured in fMRI experiments in the laboratory. By that view, much of our existence may be well-served by switching between periods of dominance of externally-directed (“task-positive”) brain networks over the DMN and vice versa, but those periods are punctuated by significant moments when our brains detect a certain “harmony” between the external world and our internal representation of the self—allowing the two systems to co-activate, interact, influence and reshape each other. ”

Edward A Vessel, G Gabrielle Starr, & Nava Rubin (2012). Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7 : 10.3389/fnims.2013.00258

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