INTRO BY JIM STUMP: It seems fitting to pair today’s book review on The Aesthetic Brain with Jeff Hardin’s post yesterday on our reactions to watching nature videos. The brain is an amazing thing. I’m not persuaded we’ll ever completely figure out how it works, but there have been some interesting and important insights from neuroscientists in the last decades. This book gives some of those insights on the brain in relationship to beauty, art, and pleasure. Thanks to Aaron Sathyanesan for his interesting review.
Anjan Chatterjee, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (Oxford University Press, 2015). 248 pages. $19.95.
In her deeply perceptive essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Christian writer and intellectual Flannery O’Connor observes, “The scientist has the habit of science; the artist, the habit of art.” O’Connor then goes on to clarify her use of the word art:
“Art is a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand. But all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work, aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.”
The “people” in O’Connor’s quote also includes scientists. To the extent that artists can be considered truth-seekers, scientists also, by the very nature of our practice, are truth-seekers. But as O’Connor notes, “art” has indeed scared us off as being “too grand” to poke, prod, and investigate. And for good reason. Imagine there was a spectrum along which one could rate the “hardness” of scientific questions. On the “easy” side of this spectrum, one would find questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” or “How does an airplane fly?”. On the “hard” side of this spectrum, one would find all manners of questions which scientists themselves would deem difficult to address, such as “What is the neural basis for consciousness?” or “Is all of reality a simulation?” (Yes, the simulation hypothesis really is a thing). The question “What is the biological basis for art and beauty?” would fall on the “hard” side, just short of the previous questions of consciousness and simulated reality.
This is why The Aesthetic Brain by Anjan Chatterjee (Oxford University Press) is an interesting and important work. In The Aesthetic Brain, the habit of science seeks to walk alongside and understand the habit of art. What results is a fascinating conversation on human evolution and the experience of beauty and aesthetics from the perspective of neuroscience.
It is easy to get carried away by anything claiming to offer a perspective from the vantage point of neuroscience. This is especially true in this day and age of neuro-nonsense, which ranges from the “neuroscience” of leadership training to “brain-training” apps. In contrast, Prof. Chatterjee’s book offers a balanced take on the intersection of neuroscience and art, maintaining a keen awareness of the methodological and philosophical boundaries of both fields.
Without giving too much away, I will attempt to briefly summarize key themes based on the three parts Chatterjee divides his book into: beauty, pleasure, and art.
Beauty is a beast (of a problem)
One question I have always wrestled with in my own mind is whether beauty is a construct of the brain, or does it actually exist. In other words, is beauty objective reality, or subjective feeling? Probably anticipating this age-old question, in the very first chapter, Chatterjee writes:
“Our mind has been sculpted by nature and it is tightly coupled to the environment. We cannot ask questions about the structure of our minds without bumping into the properties of the world. The question of whether beauty lies in the world or in our heads might be reframed as follows: what in the coupling of mind and world gives us the experience of beauty?” (4)
In framing the question this way, Chatterjee persuades us to avoid the subjective-objective dichotomy and instead look at our experience of beauty as itself being a part of the grander scheme of nature and evolution. Chatterjee’s proposition, thus, draws directly from an evolutionary psychology perspective of why we come upon beauty in the first place.
Drawing from historical and contemporary analyses of the kinds of things humans find attractive, Chatterjee summarizes universal and particular aspects of physical attractiveness. Universal aspects include properties appealing across cultures—such as certain facial features or sexually dimorphic characteristics. Particular aspects include the specific properties of attractiveness that are determined based on culture and social context.
While some of the sociological and psychological research on attractiveness of faces and bodies might seem familiar, what I really found fascinating were the chapters on the experience of beauty found in landscapes, numbers, and mathematics.
As recent studies show, experiencing “nature”—through a walk in the woods, or a hike, can have a positive effect on our mental health. It comes as no surprise then that humans would generally show a preference to natural rather than urban landscapes. In his chapter on beauty found in landscapes, Chatterjee walks us through studies in psychology and neuroscience that try to address the question of what makes for a beautiful physical expanse. One of the most interesting ideas he summarizes here deals with the Savanna hypothesis, which posits that across cultures, humans have a “programmed” preference for the natural landscape of the East African Savanna. If supported by further evidence, this idea would be a good prediction of the “Out of Africa” model of early human migration. On a lighter note, judging by the countless hours of Discovery Channel documentaries on the African savanna that I have enjoyed watching as a child, plus an almost “programmed” love of The Lion King, I find the savanna hypothesis very acceptable.
More mysterious than landscapes is the beauty found in certain numbers or mathematical theorems. For example, why certain numbers seem to have a good or bad “quality”. One good example is the number Phi or the golden ratio. While a lot of the popular literature on the subject of beauty found in numbers does come off as woo woo, Chatterjee contends that studying this may yield profound insights into human neuroscience.
In summary, beauty is found in so many seemingly disparate categories—faces, bodies, landscapes, and even numbers.Chatterjee thus refers to beauty as a “mongrel”; a sort of hybridized beast of different properties and patterns that links very strongly to pleasure responses in the brain.
Pleasure is ancient
Unlike beauty, pleasure is easy to pin down, at least from a biological viewpoint. One of the reasons for this is because an organism’s response to primary rewards such as food and sex is evolutionarily very similar across species. It would, thus, make sense that reward systems in the brain such as dopaminergic reward pathways are more ancient compared to more recent evolutionary innovations such as sensory cortical maps.
Chatterjee, in one chapter each devoted to food, sex, and money, reviews major advances in our understanding of the neural basis of pleasure. Brain structures that get quite some coverage in this section involve the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), brainstem, and amygdala, highlighting their important functions in reward value, decision making, satiety, and disgust. Although this section is heavy on neuroscience studies, the author also borrows from studies in behavioral economics to create an entertaining narrative on how food, sex, and money interact with the human brain.
The chapter “Liking, Wanting, Learning” (103-108) is quite important since it spotlights the power of neuroscience to speak profoundly about our conceptions of pleasure and desire. Chatterjee reviews the pioneering work of Kent Berridge and colleagues who demonstrated that subjective evaluation is but one part of experiencing a reward. This means that in the rat brain, as in human brains, conscious desire or “wanting” is separable from “liking”. Although liking and wanting interact in many experiences—such as eating your favorite flavor of ice cream, where you both desire it and like it, there are ways these two systems can be decoupled. A classic example which Chatterjee refers to is advanced stage behaviors in drug addiction, where drug addicts “want” to satisfy their craving by any means possible, however, they don’t necessarily “like” it as much.
One important point that Chatterjee raises regarding pleasure is how adaptable it can be. In other words, different people can experience pleasure from vastly different things and the same things can either create pleasure or disgust in different people depending on prior experience and learning. This is why certain foods like the fruit durian, or the rotten cheese casu marzu elicit feelings of pleasure and sophistication in some, but an almost violent revulsion in others.
In reviewing the neuroscience of pleasure and reward system circuitry in the brain, Chatterjee sets the stage for the next and final section of the book: art.
Art is Serendipitous
In the section on art, Chatterjee parses explanations for its evolutionary origins. He fleshes out two important themes: the universality of art and the local expression of art. Universality confers some sort of adaptive value to art, suggesting that somehow art or art-like behaviors enhanced the evolutionary fitness of human ancestors. On the other hand, variations and differences in the expression of art and what it means to humans suggests that it is not primarily an adaptation, but a spandrel. Originally an architectural term, a spandrel refers to the space between the outer edge of an arch and a right-angled bounding section, or the space between the outer edges of adjacent arches. Thus, an architectural spandrel is a byproduct that exists because of other structurally critical features like arches. In the evolutionary context, a spandrel is a byproduct of other important brain functions critical to survival. There is an inherent tension between these themes of art-as-adaptation (the universality of art) versus art-as-spandrel (local variations in art) that almost seem irreconcilable.
Chatterjee offers a third way of understanding the place of art in human evolution, which is more or less a synthesis of these two themes of universality or local variation. He uses specific examples from song behavior in birds to draw an analogy to human art-producing behavior. This chapter is by far the most compelling case he frames for what an alternative evolutionary explanation for art would look like. This beautifully written chapter easily would qualify as the crème de la crème of his book.
Does God show up in The Aesthetic Brain?
“God” only shows up once in the book. In chapter 7, where Chatterjee offers a historical aside on how English society took to the thesis of sexual selection:
“The idea that sex was fundamental to our evolution and that women were driving players in this unfolding drama was even harder to accept than the idea that there was no God to create us in His image.” (38)
It would seem apparent that this line qualifies as an atheistic statement. However, as regular readers of BioLogos would know, the view that Darwin’s ideas led to an atheist revival and a counter-response of biblical literalism is simplistic and not completely accurate. One can find further information on the BioLogos website on how Christians responded to Darwin’s ideas, including this series by science historian Sara Joan Miles, about the fascinating exchange between Darwin and his colleague, Asa Gray, who was a leading botanist and Christian.
However, I should mention, that Chatterjee’s jab at belief in “God” represented by those few lines does not determine the entirety of his approach to religion itself. He does show considerable understanding of religious themes in art, especially in how he deals with Christian themes. C.S. Lewis, in his book, An Experiment in Criticism writes:
"A work of (whatever) art can either be “received” or “used.” When we “receive” it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we “use” it we treat it as assistance for our own activities. The one, to use an old-fashioned image, is like being taken for a bicycle ride by a man who may know the roads we have never yet explored. The other is like adding one of those little motor attachments to our own bicycle and then going for one of our familiar rides. These rides may in themselves be good, bad, or indifferent. The “uses” which the many make of the arts may or may not be intrinsically vulgar, depraved, or morbid. That’s as may be. “Using” is inferior to “reception” because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves, or palliates our life, and does not add to it.” (88)
I would suspect that Chatterjee would agree with Lewis, no matter what the definition of art may be, there is much to be said about experiencing art in its fullness rather than a superficial appreciation of its aesthetic value.
Although the neuroscience of beauty, aesthetics, and art is still young, it does represent a significant effort at how scientists studying the brain understand the brain in general, and how it evolved over eons to yield a Mozart concerto, Elizabeth Thompson’s Roll Call, the Taj Mahal, or even John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”
I would highly recommend reading The Aesthetic Brain. Not just to learn about the fascinating neuroscience of art, beauty and aesthetics, but also to peek in on how science goes about taking a stab at a seemingly intractable problem, previously impervious to scientific inquiry. Maybe science will never end up answering the deep question of what art is, but we sure will have a lot of fun attempting to do so.