Neuroaesthetics and Art's Diversity and Universality

Wiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci. 2019 May;10(3):e1487. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1487. Epub 2018 Nov 28.


There is a duality to art. It is enormously varied and culturally diverse, and yet it is also universal, common to all humans. Art's variability and distinctiveness seem to elude science, better equipped to account for constant or regular phenomena. We believe that art's cultural particularity can be reconciled with its biological universality. The emergence of variability and distinctiveness from common mechanisms is at the core of biological explanation; it is a basic fact of life, and a basic fact of brain function. The individual, cultural, and historical diversity of art, both in its production and its appreciation, owe to basic features of the organization and function of the human brain. Each encounter with an artwork engages flexible neural networks that are modulated by context, expectations, emotional states, goals, and experience. Because these factors change from one occasion to another, each encounter with art has its distinct flavor. Repeated encounters with art over the course of a lifetime lead people develop personal preferences for art, as the network connections become strengthened in unique ways. These flexible and adaptable networks evolved in humans as a consequence of the relaxation of genetic constraints on the development of brain regions involved in orchestrating network dynamics, enabling a greater impact of learning and experience. In sum, art is universal and common because it arises from neural systems that are common to all humans, and it is variable and diverse because those neural systems evolved to be flexible, attuned to momentary contexts and goals, and changing through a lifetime of experiences. This article is categorized under: Economics > Individual Decision-Making Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition Neuroscience > Cognition.

Keywords: art; brain; evolution; neuroaesthetics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Art*
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition
  • Cultural Characteristics
  • Esthetics*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology