STORIES: Pattern Cognition Aesthetics
Researchers: Ed Connor, Xiaoqin Wang, Steven Hsiao, Steven Yantis, Charles Limb

Perception and evaluation of complex sensory patterns is central to human cognition and awareness, yet the underlying neural coding mechanisms are almost completely unknown. The human brain is a spectacular pattern analyzer, able to make sense of the most complex images and sounds. Human pattern cognition is so rich, varied, and intense that it is a source of aesthetic pleasure and a ground for creativity.

The aim of this project is to learn how brain mechanisms for pattern cognition determine the nature of aesthetic experience in art and music. The Pattern Cognition and Aesthetics program is a collaboration across five laboratories in the Schools of Medicine, Engineering and Arts and Sciences.

In the visual arts the goal of this project is to understand the neural basis of 3D shape aesthetics. This work is motivated by the hypothesis that 3D aesthetic preferences are driven at least in part by neural mechanisms for 3D visual perception in the brain. Artists and architects must exploit these neural mechanisms to produce profound visual experiences. The specific hypothesis is that highly abstract, minimalist sculptures capture essential forms that resonate with neural mechanisms for 3D shape vision.

The Pattern Cognition and Aesthetics program uses computer morphing technology to study 3D shape aesthetics. Experiments are based on 3D laser scans of sculptures by the 20th century modernist Jean Arp from MoMA and other sources. The laser scans serve as the basis for arrays of morphed shapes in which geometric characteristics like surface curvature, axis curvature, and volume distribution are gradually varied. Subjects are asked to choose their favorite and least favorite sculptures in each array. The results are analyzed to determine how these geometric characteristics influence aesthetic preference. Findings in this experiment will be used to design targeted tests of aesthetic responses in the human brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

In music, the objective is to understand the neural basis of tonal aesthetics. Functional magnetic resonance imaging is used again to examine responses to pleasant and unpleasant tonal arrangements. As in the visual project, stimuli are based on examples with known aesthetic value. In this case, major and minor scales and triads are presented in ascending, descending, and random order. Pilot data have revealed two surprising phenomena. First, ordered major scales receive the highest aesthetic rating, yet produce the lowest activation in auditory cortex. This implies that aesthetic preference does not relate to strength of activation in sensory cortex. Second, randomly ordered major scales produce strong activations in visual cortex. This suggests that complex, unexpected tonal patterns may induce visual imagery of spatial structure, which would have implications for multisensory appreciation of music.

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