The notion of “the aesthetic” is a concept from the philosophy of art of the 18th century according to which the perception of beauty occurs by means of a special process distinct from the appraisal of ordinary objects. Hence, our appreciation of a sublime painting is presumed to be cognitively distinct from our appreciation of, say, an apple. The field of “neuroaesthetics” has adopted this distinction between art and non-art objects by seeking to identify brain areas that specifically mediate the aesthetic appreciation of artworks.
However, studies from neuroscience and evolutionary biology challenge this separation of art from non-art. Human neuroimaging studies have convincingly shown that the brain areas involved in aesthetic responses to artworks overlap with those that mediate the appraisal of objects of evolutionary importance, such as the desirability of foods or the attractiveness of potential mates. Hence, it is unlikely that there are brain systems specific to the appreciation of artworks; instead, there are general aesthetic systems that determine how appealing an object is, be that a piece of cake or a piece of music.
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