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How Variable, Stable, or Universal are Aesthetic Preferences?

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In experimental aesthetics, two seemingly contradictory sets of findings have emerged in recent years. On the one hand, researchers have studied inter-individual differences in aesthetic judgments between observers. From these studies--and in fields like art history--it is clear that aesthetic preferences are ...

In experimental aesthetics, two seemingly contradictory sets of findings have emerged in recent years. On the one hand, researchers have studied inter-individual differences in aesthetic judgments between observers. From these studies--and in fields like art history--it is clear that aesthetic preferences are subject to change, which takes place at different time scales: cultural shifts in history, the development of taste in an individual, current viewing context (e.g., the museum environment), and even short-term perceptual contrast effects. On the other hand, there is mounting evidence that the brain mechanisms, which mediate aesthetic perception, are shared by all humans, i.e. they are universal and stable. For example, the neural correlates of aesthetic perception involve similar brain regions in the human brain for a wide variety of stimuli, ranging from artworks and music to mathematical formulae. On the stimulus side, artistic images have a number of shared characteristics—namely statistical regularities relevant to human vision coding—which are rarely omitted.

But there is debate about how variation in basic image properties relates to patterns of preference in individuals. Recent evidence shows that individual differences appear to trump shared preferences for artworks. Moreover, individuals’ idiosyncratic preferences are stable over time, even in people with dementia. These latter findings suggest that individual aesthetic perception follows rather rigid and reliable computations, which are robust even to severe cognitive impairment. In other words, aesthetic universals may impose general constraints on images, and they may help us optimize a given image, but they may not be useful in predicting individual aesthetic preferences in more naturalistic tasks. It appears that even with full understanding of shared aesthetic primitives, as well as full knowledge of the cultural context of a given object, we may not be able to predict human aesthetic response for individuals. Rather, we may require a more nuanced approach that acknowledges specific influences of universals and context, but that also aims to situate these influences in the larger framework of individual development. This may require a concerted study of the panoply of psychological and neurobiological factors that could influence aesthetics.

Therefore, this Research Topic poses a variety of questions: How much of aesthetics and/or art appreciation is common or stable in humans, and how much is variable, both between persons and across an individual's lifetime? What is the effect of short-term influences (e.g. mere exposure effects vs. habituation effects, adaptation)? How do factors of individual taste, common patterns of preference, and stability interact? How universal are brain responses to aesthetic objects between individuals and for different categories of aesthetic stimuli? What is the role of non-aesthetic factors (development, personality, emotion, creativity, intelligence, etc.), as well as the role of properties inherent in aesthetic objects?

We welcome experimental and theoretical contributions from all fields that address these and related questions. Possible methodologies could include, but are not limited to, brain imaging, behavioral tests, psychophysics, and computational approaches.

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