As one of the earliest domains of aesthetics to be studied systematically, there is a sizeable body of work on the behavioural basis and neural correlates of visual aesthetic appeal.

Here, we synthesize work across approaches that seek to explain aesthetic appeal based on objectively measurable stimulus features or emphasize individual differences and the importance of subjective factors. We adopt the view that aesthetic appeal arises from the interaction of a specific stimulus with the characteristics of a specific observer.

Neuroscience research across several visual aesthetic domains reveals that several large-scale brain systems contribute to visual aesthetic appreciation. In the visual system, judgments of visual appeal are determined more by higher-level visual processing than low-level processing. Subcortically, both the ventral and dorsal striatum, as well as the amygdala, have been implicated in judgments of aesthetic appeal. A large number of studies using various methods have found correlates of aesthetic appeal in the prefrontal cortex, most prominently in the medial prefrontal and orbital cortex. Other regions, including the inferior frontal gyrus and the insula, may also play a role for at least some domains, and there is evidence that the default-mode network, a brain system thought to support aspects of internally directed mentation, is engaged for highly moving artworks.

While the question of why particular individuals like particular images remains largely unanswered, we argue for a perspective that deemphasizes the role of specific visual features and focuses instead on the potential for aesthetic appeal to signal the presence of learnable information, linking visual aesthetic appeal to the intrinsic motivation to make sense of our visual world.