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Beauty requires thought: The experience of beauty is selectively impaired by a cognitive task

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Brielmann, A., & Pelli, D. (2016). Beauty requires thought: The experience of beauty is selectively impaired by a cognitive task. Poster presented at 23rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS 2016), New York, NY, USA.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0007-6AF6-D
People readily distinguish beauty expe-riences from other mundane pleasures. This intuition is confirmed by fMRI evidence that prefrontal regions involved in working memory and the default mode network are selectively involved in experiencing beauty. This suggests that Immanuel Kant’s notion that “beauty requires thought” may apply to neural processes underlying the experience of beauty. Here we experimentally test Kant’s hypothesis that beauty differs from “ordinary” pleasures in requiring cognitive capacities. We manipulated cognitive capacity by requiring participants to execute an auditory 2-back task in 50% of trials. Participants were presented with beautiful images (self-selected or experimenter-selected), ordinary pleasures (pretty image or eating candy), or neutral images for 30 s each. During stimulus exposure and a further 60 s after, participants continuously rated pleasure using a custom smartphone app (EmotionTracker.com), which samples the distance between two fin-gers once per second and converts it to a numerical rating (1-10). At the end of each trial, we asked participants if they felt beauty. Only for beauti-ful stimuli, continuous-pleasure and final beauty ratings were much lower for trials with vs. without the 2-back task (maximum pleasure throughout the trial: M=7.7 vs. 5.5 for self-selected images, and 7.3 vs. 5.4 for experi-menter-selected, SE≈0.7). Pleasure and beauty ratings for all other stimuli were unaffected. These results suggest that the process underlying a beauty experience has specially high cognitive demands, and that the involvement of the associated brain networks is not just correlative, but necessary.