The brain on art: Intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network

Edward A. Vessel, G. Gabrielle Starr, Nava Rubin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aesthetic responses to visual art comprise multiple types of experiences, from sensation and perception to emotion and self-reflection. Moreover, aesthetic experience is highly individual, with observers varying significantly in their responses to the same artwork. Combining fMRI and behavioral analysis of individual differences in aesthetic response, we identify two distinct patterns of neural activity exhibited by different sub-networks. Activity increased linearly with observers' ratings (4-level scale) in sensory (occipito-temporal) regions. Activity in the striatum (STR) also varied linearly with ratings, with below-baseline activations for low-rated artworks. In contrast, a network of frontal regions showed a step-like increase only for the most moving artworks ("4" ratings) and non-differential activity for all others. This included several regions belonging to the "default mode network" (DMN) previously associated with self-referential mentation. Our results suggest that aesthetic experience involves the integration of sensory and emotional reactions in a manner linked with their personal relevance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberAPRIL 2012
StatePublished - Apr 20 2012


  • Aesthetics
  • Default mode network
  • FMRI
  • Preference
  • Visual art

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Neurology
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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