The paintings of Paul Cézanne, whose birthday we celebrated this week, transport us to a different time and different place. His use of color and brushstroke force us to look at people and places in new ways. But any person’s evaluation of a single piece of art, of course, is subjective. While some may gravitate toward Cézanne, others may go for the more abstract work of Paul Klee.
Anjan Chatterjee has spent the last 17 years studying the neuroscience basis for those subjective differences. A cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and chief of neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital, Chatterjee has set out to understand the factors that shape how we perceive beauty and aesthetics, as well as how people have come to appreciate beauty in different settings.
He will be presenting this work in the public keynote lecture at the CNS annual meeting in San Francisco this March. In an interview with CNS, he gives a preview of some of his key findings – including how context and experience frame our judgments of art – and talks about some of his favorite artists and possible ways to think about how people have evolved to appreciate art.
CNS: How did you become interested in studying the neuroscience of aesthetics and art?
Chatterjee: I have always been personally interested in visual aesthetics and the arts. My professional interest in the area fell out of a 1998 bar room conversation with two close friends. One of them asked, “What would you regret in 10 years if you had not done it academically?” I realized that I would regret not combining my love of aesthetics with my love of science. Ten years is enough time to start making adjustments necessary to focus on a new area of inquiry.
CNS: What have you been most surprised to learn over the years in this subject area?
Chatterjee: The power that framing effects have on aesthetic experiences. Even though I believe that universal parameters contribute to our sense of beauty – and the term “aesthetics” is historically associated with sensations – education, exposure, and personal experiences set up framing effects that deeply influence our evaluation of objects. Framing effects are also sometimes called context effects. These effects are powerful with artworks in general, and even more so with contemporary art that is driven conceptually.
CNS: Can you give an example of such a framing effect?
Chatterjee: When artistically naïve people look at abstract images, their experience varies depending on whether they are told that these images were generated by a computer or if they are artworks hanging in a gallery. If told that they are hanging in a gallery, they like the images more and their brain responses show more activation in reward areas.
CNS: What are you most excited to still discover?
Chatterjee: Scientific aesthetics has mostly focused on beauty and the pleasure we derive from beautiful objects. While fundamentally important, this beauty-pleasure axis remains a narrow slice of the range of aesthetic experiences. What begs to be explored are experiences that are not normally pleasurable that then get framed aesthetically. For example, why can a walk down a dark and dangerous looking alley that would normally frighten us appeal to us when seen in a movie?
Another area is the application of aesthetics to therapy. Art therapy is not informed by scientific aesthetics. Understanding how art can be used to help clinical populations, distilling its essential ingredients, targeting suitable outcomes, and identifying appropriate patients would be exciting.
CNS: In the abstract for your talk, you mention “the uneasy relationship between scientific aesthetics and the humanities” – what do you mean by that? What is the nature of this relationship?
Chatterjee: In 1964, the philosopher George Dickie published a paper titled “Is psychology relevant to aesthetics?” His answer was no. This sentiment underlies one stream of thought in the humanities. At the same time, some neuroscientists have made grandiose claims about the role of neuroscience in constructing theories of aesthetics. These extreme views drive the uneasy relationship to which I alluded. My view is that scientific approaches to aesthetics can both inform and be informed by the humanities. However, it makes little sense to expect one domain to collapse into the other.
CNS: Who is your favorite artist? And in your work, have you come across any new artists or artwork that you otherwise would not have seen?
Chatterjee: There are so many, it is hard to identify one. I have a deep fondness for Cézanne, how he conceptualized space, and the way that Picasso and Matisse extended his vision in different directions.
I am also preoccupied by photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson is a popular favorite. He advanced the idea of a “decisive moment” in street photography. He recognized that events are not homogenous and within their structure, there contain peak moments that erupt from what precedes them and determine what follows. The paradox is that while photography fixes moments in time, its power derives from the implied evolution of an event across time. He captured decisive, intimate moments that reveal our humanity, and did so with a great sensitivity to composition. As someone who also studies the structure of events in my research, I find his visual insights fascinating.
I have been forced to consider conceptual artists like Felix Gonzales-Torres and Janine Antoni. Conceptual artists present a special challenge to scientific aesthetics in so far as their work does not lend themselves easily to experimentation.
CNS: What major variation have you found in how our brains respond to different types or categories of art and aesthetics?
Chatterjee: The main robust empirical difference is in exposure and expertise. Experts look at artworks differently than naïve viewers. Their experience is different. Naïve viewers typically prefer representational artworks, for example.
CNS: What is your work uncovering about how people have evolved to appreciate art and aesthetics?
Chatterjee: Evolutionary accounts suggest that we have good adaptive reasons to respond to beauty. However, the adaptive reasons vary depending on the object in question. So beauty in faces seems to draw on aspects of sexual selection. By contrast, beauty in landscapes seems to draw on aspects of natural selection.
When it comes to art, the question of evolution becomes even more complicated. The extent to which contemporary art even cares about beauty is not clear. Some people argue that since art is everywhere and evidence of art-like behavior exists as far back as we can tell, art-making and appreciation must be a fundamental human instinct. Others observe that since art is highly variable and culturally specific, it cannot represent an instinct and must be an epiphenomenon of other evolved capacities (“exaptation”). The view that I advance in my book, The Aesthetic Brain, is that the question of whether art is an adaptation or an exaptation might be the wrong question. The more fruitful question is asking what is distinct about the properties of art when it reflects an adaptation and when it reflects an exaptation?
CNS: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your work?
Chatterjee: Humans are preoccupied with aesthetics. Why do we spend tremendous amounts of time and resources in making and gazing at things that do not have any direct utilitarian benefits? This is a fundamental human experience and, as any cognitive neuroscientist interested in the nature of our mental lives, I wish to understand the nature of aesthetic experiences.
Neuroaesthetics is a domain of inquiry that cuts across many traditional domains in cognitive neuroscience, like perception, emotion, attention, and decision-making. I also hope to encourage others who study those domains to incorporate aesthetic questions and help bring this field into the scientific mainstream.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz