Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience

G. Gabrielle Starr. The MIT Press, 2013. 272 pages. $25.00.

Short-listed for the 2014 Phi Beta Kappa Christain Gauss Award

By Chelsey B. Coombs

When we go to an art museum, we are immersed in a world that is filled with great works. But not every work is created equal; a Picasso painting may make one person lift her eyebrow and shrug, while moving another person to tears. This phenomenon is all a matter of aesthetics, or the appreciation of beauty. In her book Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience, New York University Professor of English G. Gabrielle Starr takes both a philosophical and scientific look at how humans experience the subjective concept of beauty as it pertains to art.

Throughout the book, she focuses on the three Sister Arts – music, painting, and poetry – as categories of beauty that bring people pleasure, but differ in the amounts of pleasure they evoke. The beginning of the book delves mainly into the historical philosophy of aesthetics, with perspectives of theorists ranging from Plato to Peter Lamarque.

But Starr is at her best when speaking about the experiment she facilitated with her New York University colleagues, Nava Rubin and Edward Vessel, which took the concept of aesthetic experience from the subjective to the more concrete. The researchers showed 16 people 109 relatively unknown images from museum collections, telling them to imagine they were helping a curator decide which images were “most aesthetically pleasing based on how strongly you as an individual respond to them.” The participants then ranked the image on a scale of one to four in correspondence with the degree to which it moved them, as well as how much it evoked specific feelings of awe, beauty, pleasure, fear, etc. The aesthetic judgment portion of the experiment was blended with cognitive neuroscience when the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to take a closer look at the brain activity of these participants as they viewed the images.

The team found that most of the images evoked a decreased amount of activity in the regions of the brain that make up the default mode network, which previous research showed to be used in “self-assessment, forward planning, autobiographical memory, and ideas of self.” However, when the participants reported having their most powerful aesthetic experiences, the activity in these regions returned to the baseline. The experiment showed that there is something going on in the brain when we have aesthetic experiences that reach the sublime, and that these works of art are, in Starr’s words, “transporting.”

Throughout the book, Starr deconstructs important works like Jackson Pollock’s painting Shimmering Substance, John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Beethoven’s composition The Diabelli Variations to give the reader an in depth look at what gives the pieces their aesthetic value. 

One of the most striking moments of Feeling Beauty comes when Starr describes Vincent van Gogh’s painting Ravine, which X-ray studies recently showed hid another work called Wild Vegetation. Her analysis of the meaning behind Van Gogh’s sacrifice of one piece of art for another perfectly sums up the overarching message of the book: “The painting for Van Gogh carried with it the knowledge that beauty could be revalued, and that the layers of perception that structure aesthetic experience exist in dynamic relation with one another.”

The vivid color pictures of both the artwork she mentions and fMRI brain images from her study add an extra element to the book that allow the reader to better understand the aesthetic experience while also giving her the scientific evidence that supports Starr’s conclusions. 

Overall, Feeling Beauty is an illustrative guide to how aesthetics and neuroscience are tied together and how the experience of aesthetics “make[s] us newly aware of being ourselves and being in the world.” It’s worth a read so the next time you see your favorite painting or hear your favorite composition, you know exactly what your brain is going through.

Chelsey B. Coombs (ΦBK, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013) is a graduate student in New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. New York University is home to the Beta of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.