Our appreciation of a painting is different from our appreciation of an apple. This is due to the lack of practical use of the painting, which provides the famous “disinterested pleasure” (interesseloses Wohlgefallen), which is, according to Emanuel Kant, precondition for every aesthetic judgement.
Ever since, neuroscientists are very interested in this distinction; the distinction between the perception of art and non-art objects. How does the specific art perception work in the brain? Where is the spot for disinterested pleasure?
Steven Brown et al., however, look at the subject from a different perspective. There is no distinction, they say, and no specific art perception spot. Observing an artwork leads to the same rewarding processes as enjoying food or being attracted to a potential mate. The four major sensory modalities of vision, audition, gustation and olfaction show overlapping in the brain activity independently of whether they deal with art or not. Mainly, two areas of the brain are involved: one is responsible for the appraisal of extern stimuli of the four senses and the other for the appraisal of the inner needs of the body. By means of a comparison, the individual decides to go for the apple or not. Next level is the choice of a mate. Thus, both decisions refer to objects of survival advantage.
And the arts? They go in line with food and mating regarding the brain activity. Brown argues that, rather than these homeostatic needs, they satisfy social needs – a feature that co-opts with the more primordial search for nutrition and that is, too, essential for life. The valuation of art goes along with sexual selection and group selection within a society. Moreover, it is involved in social cognitio
n and empathy and may provide a neural basis for shared aesthetic experience.
Our disinterested pleasure of aesthetics, thus, is quite useful itself.
Brown S, Gao X, Tisdelle L, Eickhoff SB, & Liotti M (2011). Naturalizing aesthetics: brain areas for aesthetic appraisal across sensory modalities. NeuroImage, 58 (1), 250-8 PMID: 21699987