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Iperception. 2011;2(9):1035-62. doi: 10.1068/i0466aap. Epub 2011 Dec 15.

Putting reward in art: A tentative prediction error account of visual art.

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  • 1Laboratory of Experimental Psychology, Tiensestraat 102, 3000 Leuven, Belgium; e-mail:


The predictive coding model is increasingly and fruitfully used to explain a wide range of findings in perception. Here we discuss the potential of this model in explaining the mechanisms underlying aesthetic experiences. Traditionally art appreciation has been associated with concepts such as harmony, perceptual fluency, and the so-called good Gestalt. We observe that more often than not great artworks blatantly violate these characteristics. Using the concept of prediction error from the predictive coding approach, we attempt to resolve this contradiction. We argue that artists often destroy predictions that they have first carefully built up in their viewers, and thus highlight the importance of negative affect in aesthetic experience. However, the viewer often succeeds in recovering the predictable pattern, sometimes on a different level. The ensuing rewarding effect is derived from this transition from a state of uncertainty to a state of increased predictability. We illustrate our account with several example paintings and with a discussion of art movements and individual differences in preference. On a more fundamental level, our theorizing leads us to consider the affective implications of prediction confirmation and violation. We compare our proposal to other influential theories on aesthetics and explore its advantages and limitations.


Gestalt; aesthetic emotion; art perception; perceptual organization; predictive coding; psychoaesthetics; reward

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