Aesthetic experiences are omnipresent in our everyday life. It happens when we appreciate beauty in people, prefer one object to another, care about fashion, and design, and particularly when we appreciate music or art. The number of visitors to blockbuster exhibitions is ever increasing, and there are numerous projects for new museums. This boom in aesthetics is accomplished by an increased interest in aesthetics from the sciences.
This special issue presents research from different perspectives, all of which are part of an empirical aesthetics. Thus, by presenting research on art processing, principles of design appreciation and aspects of biological aesthetics, this special issue provides state-of-the art contributions while illustrating the breadth of research questions in recent empirical aesthetics.
Psychological aesthetics as an empirical science are as old as the academic Psychology. The founders of the earliest laboratories of experimental Psychology, Wilhelm Wundt and Gustav T. Fechner already had aesthetics on their agenda. The question of what constitutes aesthetic experiences has long puzzled philosophers. Consequently, the new discipline of Psychology took up the challenge and contributed possible answers to the questions under discussion. Fechner conducted studies in which he systematically investigated the relation of sensory stimulation and experienced sensation. The psychophysical approach was described in his Vorschule der Ästhetik (1871, Pre-school of Aesthetics) as an aesthetic approach from below. Nowadays this would be called a bottom-up approach. Aware that aesthetic experiences with art are culture dependent, Fechner also proposed that psychological aesthetics would have to provide approaches from above.
Wilhelm Wundt, another influential scientist in the founding years of academic Psychology provided such a cultural Psychology in his Volkerpsychologie (folk psychology). In ten volumes he discussed the origins of psychology beyond laboratory experiments. For example, in volume six he provides a theoretical analysis of where culture in humans comes from, what it consists of, and how cultural activities could be classified, proposing art, science and religion as the three components of the intellectual culture. Since these early days, empirical aesthetics has seen its ups and downs over the last 150 years, and empirical aesthetics was often sidelined.
However, recently aesthetics in sciences has seen a broad renaissance in psychology and related areas, at least through the emergence of new methods, a growing interest in affect and emotion and through the emergence of evolutionary based approaches. The progress in neurosciences and the technical developments observed of the last decade have made it possible to address increasingly more complex human behavior. Aesthetics as a combination of cognitive activities as well as changes in affect (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1972) have become accessible despite the large variations between individuals and the assumed complexity of influential factors. The understanding which brain regions are involved in aesthetic judgments is of interest in the neurosciences in general (Vartanian & Goel, 2004; Kawabata & Zeki, 2004. Vessel & Biederman, 2002) and empirical aesthetics in particular (Leder, Belke, Oeberst & Augustin, 2004).
The complex interplay between cognition and affect, long dominated the discussions in psychology of emotion (Zajonc, 1984; Lazarus, 1991). Recently, psychology saw an integration of both aspects of human information processing (Schwarz & Clore, 1983, Forgas, 1994; Scherer, 2003). Aesthetics as an affective experience somehow seem to be based on affective preference and cognitive selection and evaluation (Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980). However, aesthetics as an emotional experience seem to be self-rewarding and intrinsically driven, and they are a cultural phenomenon, which is interesting in itself. …