Research Article: Evaluating Aesthetic Experience through Personal-Appearance Styles: A Behavioral and Electrophysiological Study

Date Published: December 31, 2014

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Mei-chun Cheung, Derry Law, Joanne Yip, Elkan Akyürek.


Consumers’ aesthetic experience has often been linked with the concept of beauty, which is regarded as subjective and may vary between individuals, cultures and places, and across time. With the advent of brain-imaging techniques, there is more and more evidence to suggest that aesthetic experience lies not only in the eye of the beholder, but also in the brain of the beholder. However, there are gaps in the previous research in this area, as several significant issues have not yet been addressed. Specifically, it is unclear whether the human brain really pays more attention and generates more positive emotional responses to beautiful things. To explore the brain activity relating to consumers’ aesthetic experiences, 15 participants were recruited voluntarily to view a series of personal-appearance styles. They were invited to make aesthetic judgments while their brain activity was recorded by electroencephalography. Two electroencephalographic (EEG) indicators, theta coherence and frontal alpha symmetry, were utilized. Theta coherence is a measure of linear synchronization between signals at two electrode sites. It reflects the degree of functional cooperation between the underlying neuronal substrates and was used to explore the attentional processing involved in aesthetic judgments. Frontal alpha asymmetry is derived by subtracting the log-transformed absolute alpha power of the left hemisphere from the analogous log-transformed alpha power of the right hemisphere. It was used as an indicator of emotional response. During aesthetic judgments, long-range theta coherence increased in both hemispheres and more positive frontal alpha asymmetry was found when the styles were judged to be beautiful. Therefore, participants demonstrated brain activity suggestive of central executive processing and more positive emotional responses when they considered styles to be beautiful. The study provides some insight into the brain activity associated with consumers’ aesthetic experiences, and suggests new directions for exploring consumer behavior from the perspective of neuroscience.

Partial Text

The interaction between personal preferences and social and cultural influences within a specific environmental context determines whether a piece of art, an object or a person is considered to be beautiful. Therefore, the perception or judgment of beauty is often regarded as subjective, and may vary between individuals, cultures and places, and across time. Leder et al. [1] proposed a psychological model of aesthetic appreciation to explicate the cognitive processes experienced when viewing an artwork. The model consists of five processing stages and two distinct outputs. The processing stages comprise perceptual analysis, implicit memory integration, explicit classification, cognitive mastering and evaluation. The outputs are aesthetic judgments and aesthetic emotion. Within this model, “aesthetic appreciation” refers to the cognitive processes involved in continuously upgrading affective states, which result in aesthetic emotion. Aesthetic judgment is the result of cognitive evaluation, and aesthetic emotion is a by-product of the processing stages. One merit of this model is its provision of an information-processing approach to the analysis of aesthetic appreciation, with feedback loops at certain stages. It also accommodates the influence of personal characteristics and social factors, along with the interaction between individual and environment. However, as this model is conceptualized from a general psychological perspective, and thus emphasizes the psychologically relevant features of artworks, it does not explicitly provide an explanation of how the brain engages in aesthetic appreciation. Therefore, it is difficult to investigate and identify the specific brain activity associated with each processing stage.

According to Chatterjee’s model [2], the visual attributes of an aesthetic object, like those of any other visual object, are processed in the occipital brain regions. The attributes of an aesthetic object engage attention, and attention in turn enhances the processing of the attributes. Attentional processing in the fronto-parietal circuits continuously modulates the neural processing of visual attributes within the ventral visual system [3], [4]. With regard to attentional processing, Jacobsen et al. [24] found that aesthetic judgments activated not only the frontomedian cortex but the left intraparietal sulcus of the symmetry network. In contrast, Vartanian and Goel [17] reported increased activation in the occipital cortex in response to an increasing preference for a visual stimulus, suggesting that the visual attributes of preferred stimuli receive enhanced processing. However, it is difficult to determine whether increased occipital activity is associated with the attentional or emotional modulation of visual processing, as Lane et al. [54] found emotional valence, arousal and attention to have common effects on the neural activation of visual processing. In the current study, the quantitative EEG measure of theta coherence was used to further explore whether localized and/or interregional theta coherence is engaged during aesthetic judgments of personal-appearance styles. Consistent with our hypothesis, aesthetic judgments of personal-appearance styles resulted in elevated theta coherence, as compared with the resting measurements. This increase was only observed in the long-range frontal-parietal regions of the left and right hemispheres during the process of aesthetic judgments, and there was no significant difference in localized short-range theta coherence between the control stage (resting with eyes open) and the experimental stage (aesthetic judgments of appearance styles). As localized theta coherence is more closely related to the neural correlates of an attention system, the insignificant difference between the control and experimental conditions implies that the allocation of attentional load was similar during the control and experimental stages. The volume conduction of current through the tissues of the head can raise the EEG coherence at moderately separated (<10 cm) electrodes. Lower frequency EEG coherence is thought to result from a mixture of volume conduction effects and genuine source coherence [55]. It is thus also conceivable that the absence of a significant difference in the localized short-range theta coherence between the control and experimental stages was the result of the volume conduction problem. However, the increase in long-range frontal-parietal theta coherence during aesthetic judgments suggests that central executive processing is related to aesthetic judgments. Previous studies have indicated that long-range coherence in the theta-frequency range is related to various cognitive processes, such as working-memory retention [56], the top-down processing of mental images [57], the performance of mental tasks requiring focused attention and working-memory resources [58], [59], and mental-calculation tasks [23]. Recent studies have also indicated that interregional coherence, particularly between the prefrontal and parietal brain regions and in the theta-frequency range, is associated with integrative processes mediated by a central executive system. These processes integrate various memory- and information-processing functions [20], [22] and provide the critical neural correlates underlying decision making during goal-directed behavior [60]. However, Baddeley [61] has reported that a central executive system largely mediated by the prefrontal cortex is responsible for various working-memory functions, and provides an interface between memory systems by coordinating encoding and retrieval processes. Therefore, the increase observed in the current study in long-range fronto-parietal theta coherence in the left and right hemispheres during aesthetic judgments offers further support for Chatterjee's model of the integrative processes involved in attention [2], and emphasizes the contribution of these processes to the aesthetic evaluation of personal-appearance styles. Our findings suggest that when making aesthetic judgments of personal-appearance styles, an individual integrates the visual attributes of these styles, such as the design elements of color, pattern and rhythm, and principles such as balance, unity and harmony, with a unique mental aesthetic algorithm used to identify and understand aesthetic patterns [62]. This choice-relevant information is then synthesized to elicit a decision regarding aesthetic preference.   Source: