Quite simply, humans are amazing pattern-recognition machines. They have the ability to recognize many different types of patterns – and then transform these “recursive probabalistic fractals” into concrete, actionable steps. If you’ve ever watched a toddler learn words and concepts, you can almost see the brain neurons firing as the small child starts to recognize patterns for differentiating between objects. Intelligence, then, is really just a matter of being able to store more patterns than anyone else. Once IBM could build machines that could recognize as many chessboard patterns as a chess grandmaster, the machines became “smarter” than humans.

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.

We set out to understand which parts of the brain are involved in aesthetic appraisal. We gathered 93 neuroimaging studies of vision, hearing, taste and smell, and used statistical analyses to determine which brain areas were most consistently activated across these 93 studies. We focused on studies of positive aesthetic responses, and left out the sense of touch, because there were not enough studies to arrive at reliable conclusions.

The results showed that the most important part of the brain for aesthetic appraisal was the anterior insula, a part of the brain that sits within one of the deep folds of the cerebral cortex. This was a surprise. The anterior insula is typically associated with emotions of negative quality, such as disgust and pain, making it an unusual candidate for being the brain’s “aesthetic center.” Why would a part of the brain known to be important for the processing of pain and disgust turn out to the most important area for the appreciation of art?

Beauty is defined in relation to the subject since it is a property that lies in the beholder. That is to say, the feeling of pleasure provoked by beauty in the subject is the only thing that justifies our speaking of it. Taste takes place in the conformity between the object and the faculties of the mind. Research on how the feeling of pleasure is produced in the subject leads one to consider that there must be an organ capable of perceiving beauty. Both the organ and its aesthetic sense were called”taste.” The experiences of taste would be immediate and spontaneous and would not be directly related to reason but rather to the realm of sensibility. From this point of view, an object is said to be beautiful because certain properties of the object stimulate our sensibility and make us feel its beauty.

In this sense, Hume discards the metaphysics of the beautiful but does not invalidate an empirical science of the aesthetic phenomenon. In fact, he believes that there must be rules in the arts that allow us to judge them.