Neuroaesthetics: Understanding the Neural Mechanisms behind Aesthetic Appreciation and its Practical Implications for User Experience Design

Author: Buse Tezci

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A delicate painting, a monumental sculpture, a well-written book, a colourful website, and a Japanese lunchbox… What do they have in common and have a similar influence on us? At first glance it may seem like they have little in common but there is no denying that they all have the ability to capture our attention and evoke emotions by resonating with us with their aesthetics. Aesthetics has an important role in our daily lives. Whether, art, design, philosophy or even psychology, aesthetics helps us understand the way we respond to and appreciate visual and sensory experiences. From a User Experience point of view, the aesthetics of an art piece or a product can enhance its utility by making it more appealing and easier to use. Dan Norman in his infamous book Emotional Design, refers to Japanese lunchboxes as a work of art that bring together aesthetics and functionality and cites Kenji Ekuan’s book called The aesthetics of the Japanese lunchbox by giving a great example of a metaphor from the book. [1],[2] Lunchboxes are small, fully-packed but yet very pleasing with more than 20 colours contained in small compartments yet holding its functionality. As if it is a way to bring beauty into functionality. “It is art to be consumed”. [1] Naturally, in the last 30 years, aesthetics research in UX has become a relevant topic since the first articles published in 1995 [3] and in 2000. [4] The authors were the ones to bring out the aesthetics-usability relation onto the table saying that aesthetics can provoke affective responses that eventually effect the usability in a positive manner. Since then a vast number of studies were conducted on the topic [5], some of them supporting the affective responses’, such as, emotions, mood and feelings, mediation effect on relation between aesthetics and usability [6],[7] and some suggested that aesthetic-usability effect is a multifaceted concept that there are many other factors influencing this relationship, for example familiarity of icons. [8]

But if we know that aesthetics is important for (perceived) usability and affective responses are also included in this relationship, how we can we investigate the mechanism behind aesthetics that we all are affected by it? The answer to this question is attempted to be answered by a recent neuroscience field that called neuroaesthetics. Being an interdisciplinary field, combining psychology, neuroscience and aesthetics, neuroscientists study the neural processes of human aesthetic appreciation of art, music, literature, dance, architecture, and many more fields. Neuroaesthetics’s goal is to explain the neural processes of aesthetic futures influencing our attitude, decisions and behavior and neural underpinnings of aesthetic appreciation. [9],[10]. First studies of neuroaesthetics were conducted to identify the brain regions that were involved in aesthetics, and it was discovered that the brain areas important for aesthetical liking were also important in rewards processes, such as eating food or listening to music. Therefore, it is suggested that neural substrates of aesthetic liking might be similar those when you get a pleasure getting from rewards. [11] However, deducting aesthetics to simple pleasure is not the ideal, as also studies on reward processes show that there are distinctions between different rewarding systems. So, it is probable that aesthetic experiences include different rewarding systems and different combinations of them.

On the other hand, another line of neuroaesthetics studies tried to identify features that are correlated with aesthetics, such as visual features like contrast and color composition, abstractness or concreteness, being dynamic or still, painting a negative or positive affective situation and if it has associate features to our memories and more. [12] Therefore, it might be also possible that making a cognitive judgment about aesthetics of an artwork or even an Interface might work on different hierarchical visual and reward systems and their complex interplay. Which brings us back to the importance of neuroaesthetics as a field to discover how we process beauty.

Usability is a multifaceted attribute that UX designers and researchers aim for in designs and aesthetics and neuroaesthetics have much to offer to support it. Neuroaesthetics provides valuable insights into the ways in which the brain processes and responds to beauty, which has practical implications for UX design. By understanding the neural mechanisms behind aesthetics, UX professionals can create designs that are not only visually appealing but also elicit positive emotions and enhance usability. For instance, knowledge of the brain areas involved in aesthetical liking can inform the use of certain visual features in design, while understanding the different rewarding systems activated by aesthetic experiences can help designers create designs that are more engaging and memorable. Finally, neuroaesthetics can provide a scientific basis for design decisions and help bridge the gap between aesthetics and functionality in design. As such, neuroaesthetics is a relatively recent and promising field to keep an eye out for the potentiality to enhance the user experience in a variety of domains, from art and entertainment to technology and products.

[1] Ekuan, K. (2000). The Aesthetics of Japanese Lunchbox. The MIT Press.

[2] Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional Design. Basic Books, New York.

[3] Kurosu, M., & Kashimura, K. (1995). Apparent usability vs. inherent usability: Experimental analysis on the determinants of the apparent usability. In CHI ’95: Conference companion on human factors in computing systems(pp. 292–293). ACM.

[4] Tractinsky, N., Katz, A. S., & Ikar, D. (2000). What is beautiful is usable. Interacting with Computers, 13(2), 127–145.

[5] Hassenzahl, M., & Monk, A. (2010). The inference of perceived usability from beauty. Human–Computer Interaction, 25(3), 235-260.

[6] Tuch, A. N., Roth, S. P., Hornbæk, K., Opwis, K., & Bargas-Avila, J. A. (2012). Is beautiful really usable? Toward understanding the relation between usability, aesthetics, and affect in HCI. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(5), 1596–1607.

[7] Alharoon, D., & Gillan, D. J. (2020). The relation of the perceptions of aesthetics and usability. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 64(1), 1876-1880. Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.

[8] Silvennoinen, J. M., & Jokinen, J. P. (2016). Aesthetic appeal and visual usability in four icon design eras. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems, 4390-4400.

[9] Zeki, S. (2002). Inner vision: An exploration of art and the brain.

[10] Magsamen, S. (2019). Your brain on art: The case for neuroaesthetics. Cerebrum: The Dana forum on brain science. Dana Foundation.

[11] Iigaya, K., O’Doherty, J. P., & Starr, G. G. (2020). Progress and promise in neuroaesthetics. Neuron, 108(4), 594-596.

[12] Chatterjee, A., Widick, P., Sternschein, R., Smith, W. B., & Bromberger, B. (2010). The assessment of art attributes. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 28(2), 207-222.

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