Brain science is uncovering clues on what makes art a moving experience and it is pointing to you. Turns out that when people report having the most moving experiences with art — albeit while inside a machine with powerful magnets whirling around them (an fMRI machine) — they activate their default mode network. That circuit in the brain has been shown to also be activated during self-reflection about oneself, the past, the future, and social relationships. I think of it as the daydream circuit.
This paper, “The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network” is one that goes into the detail of the findings. It is part of a new field of neuroaesthetics that aims to understand why we find things beautiful and moving. It is an integration of psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory.
I recently read a related book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science [excerpt here] that goes into the core questions of why we are attracted to art. Eric Kandel points out the importance of the bottom up and top down processing by the brain. Bottom up processes are ones that favor symmetry, certain colors, and shapes. Top down start with culture and ideology and continue through influences of family, peer group and personal experiences.
These are fascinating results coming out of the integration of fields that used to be totally separate. I’m excited to watch this space develop.