A Provocative Phenomenon
Beautiful! Wow! Brilliant! Aha! Eureka! Magnificent! Amazing! Awesome! Elegant! Hilarious! Moving!—responses to music, visual art, poetry, film, literature, mathematics, science, performing arts, humor, architecture, culinary arts, and games like chess. What do these reactions, and the events that evoke them, have in common? What evokes them? What are their biological origins?
Although phenomena we may call “aesthetic” permeate our daily lives, there is nonetheless something special about them. This may be why they captured the attention of many of the world’s greatest thinkers through the ages, from the ancient Greeks through today’s neuroscientists. And yet a general and scientifically satisfying theory of aesthetics is still elusive. This article takes an approach that opens aesthetics to the experimental methods of the behavioral and biological sciences, and positions aesthetics as a special case of a pervasive type of human behavior.
Why I Took an Empirical-Naturalistic Approach
Mainly, because it keeps the focus on observable phenomena and minimizes bias due to preconceptions, always a potential hazard when the subject matter is culturally entrenched. I wanted to start with an open mind and minimize hypotheses—B.F. Skinner's recommendation for the scientific exploration of uncharted territory (Skinner, ). To make sure that any conclusions I might draw would apply to a broad range of disciplines, I examined hundreds of phenomena we tend to call aesthetic, drawn from 17 diverse arts and disciplines, and some from nature. I wanted to discover what, if anything, all of these phenomena have in common.
What Is Special About the Stimulus?
I observed that stimuli that evoke responses we might call aesthetic are always composites of multiple elements that don’t ordinarily occur together. When they do, their joint effect is different in kind from the separate effects of the individual elements. They interact transformatively.
An iconic example: Picasso combined and transformed two familiar concepts—the handles and seat of a bicycle—into a surprising third concept, the head of a bull. Neither the handles nor the seat would produce this effect separately. Their interaction is thus transformative, and can evoke an “aesthetic” Footnote 1 response in viewers who have the relevant priming history with respect to bicycle parts and bulls. A behavioral and biological analysis of aesthetic phenomena requires an examination of the stimulus, the response, the devices responsible for their interactive effects, and the evolutionary origins of these effects.
The Aesthetic Response
In our daily lives, we routinely experience likes and dislikes, small ones and large ones. Our reactions to the mundane stimuli we encounter range from beautiful to ugly, attractive to unattractive, appealing to unappealing. When minor and ephemeral, these reactions usually go unnoticed. When large, they may give rise to the kinds of exclamations listed in the first lines of this article. Intense or fleeting, the aesthetic response proper is of the emotional type, usually covert (private), and often surprise tinged (as in the bicycle/bull example). It may or may not be accompanied by an overt manifestation.
Our private emotional reactionFootnote 2 to a stimulus we find beautiful or surprising, such as the transient pang occasioned by a sunset or a Mozart melody, does not depend on any effects it may have or on what it may accomplish; it is unaffected by its consequences or outcomes, and it is often quasi-reflexive. Neuroscientists have observed that the amygdala, whose function Eric Kandel () characterized as “the orchestration of our emotional life,” is an important locus of neural correlates of aesthetic responses. For highlights of the vast literature on prior work in aesthetics, see Appendix B.
The covert emotional response is distinct from the operant actions that potentiate it—looking at the painting, listening to the music, reading the poem, or putting food in the mouth. Such potentiating operantFootnote 3 actions are necessary precursors of the emotional component, which is generally covert and private. Though covert, it may give rise to overt operant responses, like gasps or exclamations (“Wow! “Beautiful!” etc.). These are easily conflated with their covert antecedents, and when they are, the covert antecedent is easily overlooked.
This diagram shows how the aesthetic response is comprised of overt operant and covert emotional components.
But the main reason the covert component is easily overlooked and has not yet received systematic research attention is that it is private, and thus difficult to observe and measure separately (though fMRI technology may be changing that). As such, it is not as accessible for study as, for instance, our verbal behavior.
The aesthetic response is usually surprise tinged (see Section ). It is always modulated by the audience’sFootnote 4 priming history (see Sections and ), and by ambient circumstantial factors that potentiate it (see Sections - ). It has no immediate function or biological urgency. Part 3 of this article discusses its evolutionary origins.
Applications Beyond Aesthetics
Aesthetic responses may be special cases of a more widespread behavioral phenomenon—the continuous daylong stream of our fleeting, barely noticed or unnoticed affective reactions to the events and stimuli of our daily lives—the small likes and dislikes, inclinations, and aversions previously described in Section Are these subaesthetic or microaesthetic reactions coextensive with aesthetics? The present article identifies many variables that modulate aesthetic reactions. If future research shows these same variables to modulate subaesthetic reactions in similar ways, the conjecture that aesthetic reactions and subaesthetic reactions are indeed coextensive, “made of the same stuff,” would be supported. A fuller understanding of aesthetics might then cast some of its light on such clinical topics as flat affect, despondency, depression, and so forth, and perhaps even on ways to enhance enjoyment of life generally.
Synergetic Interaction: Nature’s Master Key
The transformative effects described in Section were conceptualized by Hermann Haken, the German physicist who originated synergetics, the science of interactions whose effects are different in kind from those of the individual interacting elements (Haken, , ). He described synergetics, in the title of one of his publications, as Erfolgsgeheimnisse der Natur, which translates as “nature’s secrets for achieving successes.” Buckminster Fuller defined synergetics as “behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately” (Fuller, ), for example, chemical reagents reacting to form other substances; catalytic reactions like photosynthesis; and interactions of DNA’s components to produce proteins and ultimately organisms.
Synergetic Interactions in Behavior
Given the ubiquity of synergetic interactions in nature, their prevalence in the behavioral realm is not surprising. Familiar behavioral instances (not necessarily pertinent to aesthetics) are learning, trauma, epiphanies, and emotional reactions. For example, the words of a sentence interact synergetically when they are arranged in a certain order—they acquire a meaning that they do not have individually.
Particularly striking instances of behavioral synergetic interaction effects are the extraordinary ones of film and video games. The film medium is unmatched in its ability to capture and hold for hours the rapt attention and intense emotional involvement of an audience. And video games are notorious for their power to exert a virtually addictive hold on the behavior of players, sometimes even at the expense of their social relationships or work obligations.
These behavioral phenomena (again, not necessarily pertinent to aesthetics) involve elements interacting to create effects that differ in kind from the effects of the elements acting separately. The effects always depend on elements occurring together in an unusual combination and interacting transformatively—the definition of synergetic interaction.
The Synergetic Brew
I will use the term synergetic brew as a shorthand for “amalgam of elements, some of which interact synergetically.” Other elements of the brew may interact in other ways—they may be mutually contradictory, incongruous, synergistic, and so forth. The term brew encompasses the many different kinds of elements that may comprise it. These may consist of the following:
any type of stimulus—exteroceptive, internal, or abstract;
covert (private) effects of verbal or nonverbal thinking (Rolls, );
any type of emotion;
social factors and the behavior of others (Malott, , );
elements of the existing concept repertoire (see Part 2);
elements generated by audience involvement;
prevailing behavioral contingencies;
environmental states like ambient temperature; and
level of physiological states like hunger, thirst, fatigue, or pain.
Synergetic brews comprised of these types of elements act as stimuli for many types of emotional responses, including aesthetic and subaesthetic ones. The multitude of possible interactions among the elements of synergetic brews—the interactions’ historic frequencies, durations, probabilities, contexts, sensory modalities, and so forth—offers whole new vistas for studying the genesis of emotional reactions.
Synergetic Effects in the Arts
Elements that interact synergetically normally don't occur together. If and when they do, they interact only when the interaction is appropriately primed and potentiated. The effects of synergetic interactions are termed aesthetic when they generate responses of the types described previously in Sections and
Artists, composers, poets, and others arrange the elements of their disciplines to create synergetic brews that have aesthetic effects for appropriately primed audiences. These brews bring together stimuli that may be unremarkable individually for "a magical metamorphosis of the ordinary" (Gibson, ). For example, the interacting elements may include a particular melody, rhythm, and harmonic progression, or a certain color scheme, composition, and depiction. Synergetic interactions often occur when the interacting elements are drawn from diverse disciplines. For example, musical and verbal concepts may interact synergetically to create songs; the emotional impact of film is often the result of interactions among music, color, drama, and emotional concepts; the dramatic impact of an operatic work may be due to synergetic brews that combine music, plot, and staging; a cathedral’s architecture and singing can enhance the congregation’s religious fervor; and in paintings, emotion-evoking subjects like violence, nudity, religious concepts, or emotional facial expressions can interact synergetically with the theme, color, or composition.
Devices That Create Effective Synergetic Brews
A remarkably small set of concept manipulation devices (I have identified 16) accounted for all of the hundreds of observed effects. These devices are summarized in Section All of them are based on manipulation of the audiences’ concept repertoires and they reflect the ways in which the elements of the brew interact. The devices can be thought of as recipes for the creation of synergetic brews that can then be configured into Works.Footnote 5
The operation of these 16 devices is responsible for the aesthetic emotional impact that some synergetic brews create. Parts 8 and 9 provide more than examples of how they create synergetic brews. For each of the effects discussed, I referenced the specific devices at play with the letters under which they are described in Section
Potentiation and Priming of Aesthetic Responses
Responses to synergetic brews occur when they are potentiated. While chemical or culinary brews often require heat or catalysts for their potentiation, synergetic brews that evoke aesthetic responses require potentiating factors that include the audience’s behavioral and physiological state as well as environmental and sociocultural factors (see Sections - ). Response-produced stimuli, too, can potentiate and stoke the synergetic interaction via autocatalytic feedback.
The audience’s behavioral state must always include the effects of an appropriate priming history with respect to the brew’s ingredients (see Sections and ) and the right emotional or physiological state. Fear, anger, hunger, cold, pain, for example, generally inhibit aesthetic as well as subaesthetic responses. Audience members respond to synergetic brews idiosyncratically due to the uniqueness of their concept repertoires (see Section ) and priming histories.
Common Features of Aesthetic Phenomena
Per our theory, the five features listed below, taken together, describe the main attributes of aesthetic phenomena as the term is generally used in most verbal communities.
An audience's response to synergetically interacting elements.
A response that has a surprise-tinged emotional component.
A synergetic brew’s positive reinforcement effect.
An audience in an appropriately primed state (see Sections and ).
Factors that potentiate the response (see Sections - )
The synergetic stimulus is always a complex of the types of elements listed in Section , and the aesthetic response itself is described in Sections and
A Diagrammatic Overview
The following figure presents my metaphors for the creation of aesthetic responses. The sketches at the upper right represent creators of aesthetic effects as they combine and configure the elements of their arts. Some of these elements are listed in the broad arrows that lead to the cauldron. The devices the creators use in creating the synergetic brews are represented by the manual, Devices That Can Create Aesthetic Impact—their conceptual “cookbook.” The cauldron represents the disciplines (art, music, etc.) in which the creators configure synergetic brews into Works. They apply creative energy symbolized by the flames under the cauldron. The Works become accessible to audiences via potentiating factors symbolized by the ladle and dish. For audiences (the face) that have the requisite priming history, the Works evoke covert emotional aesthetic responses sometimes accompanied by overt manifestations, like the exclamations shown in the bubble on the left. The smile is intended to indicate that synergetic stimuli that evoke aesthetic responses are emotionalizing and often positively reinforcing.
Synergistic Versus Synergetic Interactions
As mentioned in Section , not all elements of a brew interact synergetically. Many may interact only synergistically, or not at all. Synergetic interactions differ from synergistic ones in that their effects are transformative (different in kind from the interacting elements), whereas those of synergistic interactions are quantitative and incremental (greater than their sum, as if 1 + 1 = 3), but not different in kind. Both synergistic and synergetic effects can be involved in the creation of aesthetic effects in synergetic brews.
This figure illustrates the difference between synergetic and synergistic interactions of elements. The analysis of such interactions is still unexplored territory in behavioral science. The challenge is to analyze, describe, and categorize interactions on the basis of their features and functions. For instance, synergistic interactions among elements often create new elements that will then interact synergetically (transformatively) with other elements. Thus, synergistic interactions can potentiate synergetic ones. The study of types of interactions may prove to be a fruitful area of research (see also Section ).
How the Present Approach Differs
It comes from a special direction—the empirical-naturalistic direction—and uses special analytic tools. I tried to confine myself to concepts that apply to observable entities, or that can be modeled for experimental analysis, at least in principle (see Section ).
Parts 8 and 9 present more than of the many “aesthetic” effects I analyzed. To help ensure that any commonalities I may observe are general, I gleaned the samples from 17 different arts and disciplines and also included some natural aesthetic phenomena (like sunsets).
The preceding sections presented observations regarding the nature of the aesthetic response and how it is evoked. This is the foundation on which the rest of the theory is built and on which we can address such questions as:
What attributes of aesthetic phenomena are responsible for their reinforcing properties?
Are there different kinds of “aesthetic” effects? If so, what are they?
Does what we learn about aesthetic phenomena apply to subaesthetic ones (as proposed in Section )?
Is there an identifiable set of devices that creators of aesthetic effects use, and if so, what are these and why do they work?
What are the evolutionary roots of aesthetic phenomena?
The Domain of Emotional Reactions
Most prior work in aesthetics considered mainly phenomena termed beautiful or pleasurable rather than ugly or unpleasant. But the present analysis, as well as some prior ones (e.g., Rolls, ; Rusch & Voland, ), suggest that all aesthetic phenomena, regardless of valence, involve similar mechanisms and origins. Beautiful is to aesthetic phenomena as sweet is to tastes (which can also be bitter or sour).
But regardless of valence, synergetic brews that evoke aesthetic responses are usually reinforcing to the audience: even sad or tragic stories attract audiences, not to speak of horror movies and thrillers. The evolutionary theory put forward in Part 3 helps explain why the properties of aesthetic phenomena transcend valence. Part 4 identifies and analyzes the underlying mechanisms and evolutionary roots of their reinforcing and emotionalizing effects.
Research Models of Aesthetic Phenomena
The main challenge of any research endeavor is to devise simple, manageable laboratory models that lend themselves to experimental analysis and measurement (Nagel, a, b, ). The experimental study of aesthetic phenomena will require a variety of such models for the various devices described in Section The present theory opens several paths to laboratory modeling of aesthetic phenomena.
For instance, a rudimentary model of expectation and surprise can be created by installing a learning history in which Concept A was always followed by either Concepts B or C, whose relative historic frequencies would be an independent variable. Various possible dependent variables can then be used to study the differences between the responses evoked by Concepts B and C.
The film medium and video games warrant special research attention because of their outlier status with respect to both (a) their uniquely powerful behavioral effects and (b) the unusually large number of elements and devices that comprise their synergetic brews (see Sections and ). If research were to show (a) to be a function of (b), new light would be shed on the mechanisms of reinforcement and emotionalization in other arts and disciplines. Such a relationship would help identify attributes that synergetic brews must have in order to evoke certain types of responses.
Appendix A outlines the many research topics and directions that the present theory suggests. That outline should be regarded only as a preliminary sketch that needs, and I hope will receive, elaboration as actual research gets underway.
Research Implications for Subaesthetic Effects
If the same variables that modulate aesthetic responses are shown to have similar modulating effects on the subaesthetic responses described in Section , we would have further evidence that subaesthetic responses are indeed coextensive with aesthetic phenomena—weaker, subtler, less noticeable, and more ephemeral versions of them. These variables could then be considered research targets with implications even beyond the clinical ones—perhaps factors that impact the normal enjoyment of daily life.