A recent study showed that people evaluate products more positively when they are physically associated with art images than similar non-art images. Neuroimaging studies of visual art have investigated artistic style and esthetic preference but not brain responses attributable specifically to the artistic status of images. Here we tested the hypothesis that the artistic status of images engages reward circuitry, using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during viewing of art and non-art images matched for content. Subjects made animacy judgments in response to each image. Relative to non-art images, art images activated, on both subject- and item-wise analyses, reward-related regions: the ventral striatum, hypothalamus and orbitofrontal cortex. Neither response times nor ratings of familiarity or esthetic preference for art images correlated significantly with activity that was selective for art images, suggesting that these variables were not responsible for the art-selective activations. Investigation of effective connectivity, using time-varying, wavelet-based, correlation-purged Granger causality analyses, further showed that the ventral striatum was driven by visual cortical regions when viewing art images but not non-art images, and was not driven by regions that correlated with esthetic preference for either art or non-art images. These findings are consistent with our hypothesis, leading us to propose that the appeal of visual art involves activation of reward circuitry based on artistic status alone and independently of its hedonic value.

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