In the “I” of the Beholder: How Art Speaks to an Individual (2024)

Art, in its myriad forms, has the unique power to evoke deeply personal emotions and thoughts, influencing our moods and even our productivity. But what is it about art that moves us so profoundly? What elements make an abstract piece of art beautiful? And why does the perception of an artwork oscillate between ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’ depending on the observer? These intriguing questions have been the focus of numerous studies, unearthing fascinating insights into the intricate relationship between art, self-perception, and the underlying neuroscience of aesthetics (neuroaesthetics).

When it comes to assessing the beauty of faces or natural landscapes, human preferences tend to be fairly uniform. We are universally drawn to symmetrical faces and harmonious proportions. However, the realm of art introduces a subjective dimension to beauty. Our appraisal of artwork becomes a deeply personal affair, intricately woven with our identity, memories, and personal experiences. This personal lens through which we view art makes each encounter with it a unique reflection of ourselves.

The Mirror and the Window

Artwork that speaks to us isn’t just about pretty pictures—it’s a mirror reflecting our inner world. When an image holds personal meaning, it dominates our aesthetic judgments. Imagine standing before a canvas that evokes memories, speaks to your passions, or mirrors your identity. Suddenly, the brushstrokes become more than strokes—they become a key to unlock deeper layers of meaning. As shown in several studies, when an artwork resonates with personal experiences, it becomes beautiful in our eyes.

But here’s the twist: self-relevance isn’t just about us. It’s also a window into understanding others. When we relate a piece of art to our own experiences, we gain insight into the artist’s intent, the collective human experience, and the shared emotions that transcend individual boundaries.

The Science Behind This Connection: Aesthetics and Self-Relevance

Edward A Vessel and his colleagues conducted a series of studies to explore the relationship between self-relevance and aesthetic appeal. In an earlier fMRI study, they asked people to look at unfamiliar paintings from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, Eastern and Western, representational and abstract, and rate them on a range from ‘beautiful’ to ‘ugly’ (1).

The researchers emphasized that participants should respond based on what moved them. They found that moving paintings activated the default mode network (DMN), a network engaged in self-referential processing when we think about ourselves. The findings suggest that we find beauty in artwork that reflects parts of us. In other words, when an artwork resonated with personal experiences, it became beautiful in our eyes.

In a later study, the researchers manipulated the relevance of the images for each participant (2). They first collected information about each person, such as demographic information, key personal memories, and personal interests. Then, they created synthetic, self-relevant artworks using deep neural networks that transferred the style of existing artworks to photographs. The style transfer was applied to self-relevant photographs selected to tap into the participants’ individual memories. Each person rated the aesthetic appeal of self-relevant generated synthetic artwork, others’ generated synthetic artwork, real artworks, and control pictures. Out of the four categories, participants found the self-relevant synthetic artwork the most beautiful.

Beauty is in the Genes of the Beholder

Our genes play a role in aesthetic evaluations. Bignardi and colleagues asked monozygotic twins (who share 100% of their genes) and dizygotic twins to rate the aesthetic allure of abstract images, scenes, and faces (3). They found that genetic influences explain some of the variability in taste-typicality and evaluation bias across different visual domains. The genetic contribution was small, and the environment still had a larger contribution. Nonetheless, this finding indicates that our aesthetic preferences may be influenced by our genetic makeup, in addition to our unique experiences, further highlighting the deeply personal nature of aesthetic experiences.

The Ethical Implications

Understanding self-relevance and aesthetic appeal has practical implications. Art therapy, for instance, can harness the power of self-relevant images to heal and express emotions. Perhaps aesthetic ratings and what is considered a self-relevant image might change and evolve over the healing journey.

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But there’s a cautionary note: media companies can exploit this knowledge to create addictive content on social platforms. Dr. Vessel warns about the increasing presence of algorithms that attempt to predict what a consumer likes and then deliver personalized visual content based on the collected personal information (2). Based on the research discussed, people find visual representations that are reflective of aspects of themselves (memories, personal experiences, etc.) most appealing. As personal data gets collected, AI can generate visual content from which it would be difficult to disengage.


Next time you stand before a painting, consider the “I” in the beholder. Art isn’t just about what we see—it’s about who we are. So let it speak to your soul, unlock memories, and connect you to the shared human experience. What secret is that art piece trying to communicate to you?


(1) Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2013). Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. Frontiers in neuroscience, 7, 258.

(2) Vessel, E. A., Pasqualette, L., Uran, C., Koldehoff, S., Bignardi, G., & Vinck, M. (2023). Self-Relevance Predicts the Aesthetic Appeal of Real and Synthetic Artworks Generated via Neural Style Transfer. Psychological science, 34(9), 1007–1023.

(3) Bignardi, G., Smit, D. J. A., Vessel, E. A., Trupp, M. D., Ticini, L. F., Fisher, S. E., & Polderman, T. J. C. (2024). Genetic effects on variability in visual aesthetic evaluations are partially shared across visual domains. Communications biology, 7(1), 55.

In the “I” of the Beholder: How Art Speaks to an Individual (2024)


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