Anjan Chatterjee is a professor of neurology, psychology, and architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and founding director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. He researches neuroaesthetics, spatial cognition, language, and neuroethics, and is the author of The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art.
You are the founding director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. For those of us who aren’t familiar with the field, can you give us an overview?
Neuroaesthetics, as suggested by the name, investigates the neurobiology of aesthetic experiences. These experiences often involve beauty, but also encompass events and interactions with objects that evoke intense feelings, typically linked to pleasure.
Aesthetic experiences emerge from a dynamic we have called the Aesthetic Triad. The triad involves sensory-motor, reward-emotion, and semantic-meaning neural systems. As a basic science, neuroaesthetics asks, how do these systems give rise to aesthetic experiences? As an applied science, neuroaesthetics asks, why does aesthetics matter? For example, how does the aesthetics of a building affect our well-being, or can art be used to help disorders of emotion regulation?
Whether we find it in art, landscapes, architecture, or other people, beauty is certainly one of the most enduring and controversial philosophical debates. But from a neurological perspective, how do our brains shape our perceptions of beauty?
To a first approximation, beauty in the brain is the simultaneous neural activation of sensory areas and reward regions. Looking at a beautiful face activates an area in the brain that is tuned to faces, called the fusiform face area, and reward areas such as the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal cortex. The experience of beauty in a landscape means that the same pleasure areas are simultaneously activated as the areas sensitive to spaces. These couplings are examples of activation of the sensory and reward systems of the Aesthetic Triad. If we know something about an artwork or are familiar with a landscape, then our brain’s meaning system further modulates these experiences of beauty.
Are we born with aesthetic preferences, or are they mostly constructed through social and cultural contexts?
Some aesthetics preferences were coded into our brains by evolution, particularly over the Pleistocene era (commonly referred to as the Ice Age). We probably start with some preferences for natural objects, such as faces and natural landscapes, that are fairly universal. These initial preferences are then modified by the social and cultural contexts in which we apprehend these objects. By contrast, human-made artifacts like art and architecture are deeply shaped by our social and cultural heritage. However, even those preferences are scaffolded by ancient aesthetic biases built into our brains.
The "Beauty is Good" Stereotype
What are the biological drivers behind why we enjoy beauty, pleasure, and art? Do they serve an evolutionary purpose?
For all mobile organisms, a fundamental question is whether to approach or avoid an object or a place. Beauty urges us to approach. When approach behaviors are linked to reproductive success, over many generations the drivers of those behaviors gradually get embedded into our brain. Preferences for people who have physical features that signal health and places that offer refuge and nourishment incrementally improve reproductive success and propagate through populations to become the source of our ingrained sense of beauty. Tracing the contributions of reproductive advantages to art-making and engagement is more complicated. Insofar as some art promotes social cohesion, artistic behaviors may also have conferred evolutionary reproductive advantages to people in early small-scale societies.
Recently, your research has explored the “beauty is good” stereotype — the expectation that physically attractive people have more positive characteristics. Can you elaborate on this research? What does it reveal about the moral implications of neuroaesthetics?
The seductive power of aesthetics has widespread moral implications. Our brains are adept at discriminating objects but are sloppy at ascribing distinct values to those objects. The ancient Greeks thought Beauty, Goodness, and Truth are core human values. Our research finds that people conflate beauty and goodness (and probably beauty and truth, although we have not studied this combination formally).
Attractive people are regarded as more intelligent, hardworking, trustworthy, and warm. They are hired more often, given higher pay, and receive lesser punishments for infractions than their less attractive peers. We also find a complementary “facial anomaly is bad” stereotype. People with minor facial differences, such as scars and birthmarks, are viewed as less intelligent, hardworking, trustworthy, and warm. Popular media, such as movies, amplify these biases by often depicting villains (e.g., Bond movies, Marvel and Star Wars Universes) as having facial anomalies. This pernicious message is fed to our children early in movies like the Lion King, where the villain is even named by his anomaly — Scar. One aim of our current work is to investigate the malleability of these biases, with an eye towards mitigating them.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.