Aesthetic experience

Broadly speaking, aesthetic experience is the experience of engaging with works of art. In practice, the study of visual art has tended to dominate scientific inquiry, and brain-based approaches have, as everywhere else, grown rapidly in popularity. The discussions listed here are, however, chosen for their relevance specifically to literary art.

Scientific discussions:

Augustin, M. D., and Wagemans, J. (2012). Empirical aesthetics, the beautiful challenge: An introduction to the special issue on art and perception. i-Perception, 3(7), 455-458. (full text for all articles in issue)

An introduction to a special issue containing wide-ranging discussions of topics in the empirical aesthetics of visual art, including the dynamics of aesthetic appreciation, components of aesthetic experience (fascination, appraisal, and emotion), feelings of presence in engagement with film, and experimental methodologies including eye tracking and measures of emotion and bodily posture. The introduction reflects briefly on some of the history and the challenges of conducting experimental work on responses to (visual) art.

Cupchik, G. C. (2014). Theoretical foundations for an empirical aesthetics. In P. P. L. Tinio and J. K. Smith (Eds), The Cambridge handbook of the psychology of aesthetics and the arts (pp. 60-85). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (paywall), (partial preview)

The chapter begins with reflections on why aesthetic reception matters to psychology, and goes on to consider the differences between (behavioural) information theory and Gestalt psychology, including their implications for emotional response, and how they seem to conflict but are in fact complementary. The chapter also deals with how to define an aesthetic experience (including through a combination of engagement and distance); reactive and reflective modes of aesthetic engagement; the motivations of pleasure and interest; temporal dynamics and long-term recollection; the search for meaning; and the historical roots of empirical aesthetics. (The book also contains a chapter on literature which is somewhat over-poeticised – though it does offer some helpful tips for further reading. There’s also an introduction to neuroaesthetics, plus chapters on emotion and aesthetic experience, unusual aesthetic states, and personality and aesthetic experience.)

Cinzia, D. D., and Gallese, V. (2009). Neuroaesthetics: A review. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 19, 682-687. (full text)

An outline of the field, with sections on neural correlates, the reward system, visuomotor processing, embodiment, and emotion. Brown, S., and Dissanayake, E. (2009). The arts are more than aesthetics: Neuroaesthetics as narrow aesthetics. In M. Skov and O. Vartanian, Neuroaesthetics (pp. 43-57). New York: Baywood. (full text) A critical take on empirical aesthetics, including discussion of the functions of art. The basic idea is that we should think of arts not as objects but as things people do (think of art-related ritual, for example), with an emphasis on the connections between art and appraisal-driven emotion (and some discussion of its neural correlates). The piece concludes with the need to take into account the four emotional focal points (outcome, object, agency, and social interaction) in thinking about aesthetic response, and proposes a new name for the field: ‘neuroartsology’.

Marin, M. M. (2015). Crossing boundaries: Toward a general model of neuroaesthetics. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, article 443. (full text)

An overview of the current state of the field, addressing definitional questions and suggesting the need for a more inclusive approach that broadens out from the emphasis on vision and considers multimodal forms of engagement, as well as systematically comparing different object classes. In conclusion, the author makes the case for more humanities researchers to get involved in neuroaesthetics work.

Cognitive humanities discussions:

Michelson, D. (2014). Personality and the varieties of fictional experience. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 48(2), 64-85. (paywall)

Counters the common assumption that differences in identity influence what, how, and why we read with the claim that literature affects personality. The central example explored is the fact that the kinds of literary experiences valued by literary scholars – deep meditative reading, introspection, sensuous aesthetic apperception, and identity development – are not typical of general adult reading experiences, and are preferentially sought and successfully developed in individuals moderately high in the heritable personality dimension of Openness to experience. The possibility that these personality-related preferences are trained by reading itself has pedagogical as well as theoretical implications for how we think about literature in its cognitive and evolutionary context. [crossref with personality??]

Verheyen, L. (2015). The aesthetic experience of the literary artwork. A matter of form and content? Aesthetic Investigations, 1(1), 23-32. (full text)

Argues that formalist approaches to literary aesthetic experience (and in particular the idea that ordinary readers are interested in stories but not how they are told) make the mistake of assuming we can separate form from content and meaning from experience; in fact, it is the connection between form and content that makes the emotional aspects of aesthetic response possible. The paper argues that formal elements alone cannot define a work of literature because those elements have no intrinsic aesthetic value other than through the aesthetic effects they create in the act of reading. The article concludes with reference to Semir Zeki’s work on the neural correlates of the aesthetic experience of mathematical formulations in mathematicians versus non-mathematicians, interpreting the results as indicating that an appreciation of both meaning and form are required for an experience of beauty.

Consoli, G. (2012). A cognitive theory of the aesthetic experience. Contemporary Aesthetics, 10. (full text)

An attempt to naturalise the aesthetic experience using cognitive-scientific insights into relevant modes of enactive experience (e.g. transparency versus activity) and attitude activation modes (automatic versus deliberate) in relation to the interplay of attention and consciousness, modularity and integration, and imagination and knowledge. In evolutionary terms, the paper argues that the aesthetic experience is a cross-cultural predisposition that is both a result of mental flexibility and cultural creativity and a basic feature of the human brain that improves flexibility and allows creativity to proliferate.