What exactly does it mean when we say that something suits our “aesthetic?” That we find it visually or audibly appealing? That we like the way a painting looks or the way a book puts a world in our head? That something resonates with us? It might sound simple enough to say that it means we enjoy the look or feel of a particular thing, but a lot happens when we react to something we find moving or enrapturing, and we’re not necessarily aware of the complexity of the effects that these aesthetic experiences have on us. Neuroaesthetics, the study of aesthetic experiences in relation to the brain, is a recent field of study, one that our very own CAS Dean and English Professor G. Gabrielle Starr has consistently approached. This year, her work in this field garnered her a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, an annual award given by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to 175 scholars, artists, and scientists (out of over three thousand applicants!) in honor of their “prior achievement and exceptional promise.”
In 2013, Dean Starr published a book titled Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience that delved into the neural effects of the arts. The title of Starr’s book sums up its main argument nicely: it seeks to demonstrate the complex connections between what we see and what we experience, and Starr accomplishes this by observing networked neural activity in response to the “sister arts” of music, literature, and visual arts. Neural reactions to these sister arts involve multiple areas of the brain, like those associated with memory, language, and emotion. Starr wanted to find a way to distinguish a normal neural response to these arts from the intense one we might experience with a particular piece of art but not others. Feeling Beauty doesn’t end on a definitive conclusion, but instead explicitly opens the way to more research in neuroaesthetics.
Starr’s work in this field continues today, currently in the form of directing a three-year project on neuroaesthetics that continues the work she did for Feeling Beauty. She will soon be working on a project titled Imagined: Aesthetic Life and the Double Face of Experience, for which she won a Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this year. Like her past and current work, this project will also focus on the relationship between neural activity and aesthetic experience. This project, however, will devote special attention to the experience of being lost in an immersive and imaginative state. Such states—which we experience, for instance, when we are lost in a book and can vividly see what is happening on the page—are the intense aesthetic experiences that Starr will focus on when she takes up her fellowship work in the 2016-2017 academic year.