The packed CNS 2015 keynote on the neuroscience of art and aesthetics was full of big ideas. Here are 5 to ponder:
To kick off his keynote lecture, Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Hospital explained how aesthetics is not always art and art is not always aesthetics, and showed a handy venn diagram to see the overlaps. Beauty, he said, is its own special area of study, with the investigation of beauty in faces, in particular, going back hundreds of years. Scientists have found 3 parameters that contribute to what people find beautiful in faces. The first, disturbingly discovered by eugenicist Francis Galton in the late 19th century, is that the average of features across many people’s faces is almost always regarded as more attractive than any individual face contributing to that composite. Galton discovered this phenomenon by trying to produce a prototype face of a criminal, combining together the features of known convicts. He believed that people’s faces were indicative of their character. The prototype criminal face that Galton compiled was attractive. And this idea — of composite faces of features averaged across many individuals being attractive — has been replicated over time. The second parameter Chatterjee discussed is that of symmetry. While he said an absolutely symmetrical face can “get creepy,” just shy of perfect symmetry, the more symmetrical a face, the more people find it attractive. Referencing another historic example, he showed a picture of Max Factor (aka Maksymilian Faktorowicz), a cosmetologist to the stars in the 1930s, who created a cage-like structure to detect minor asymmetries on people’s faces that he could then cover up with makeup. The idea, which might actually be true, Chatterjee said, is that there are things below our conscious perception that impact how we perceive beauty. The third and final beauty parameter he described was gender — the features that people tend to find universally appealing for female compared to male heterosexuals. For females, these features include big eyes, thin eyebrows, full lips, small noses, and high cheekbones. For men, they are a square jaw, heavy brow, and thinner cheeks. Even in infants and across cultures, Chatterjee said, these biases are commonly shared. Despite these common parameters, the overlap in people agreeing about face attractiveness ranges only between 20 and 40 percent. 2.
In a 2009 study, Chatterjee and colleagues saw neural activity in the visual cortex varying with attractiveness even when participants were not asked to think about attractiveness. The participants had two sessions, one in which they had to identify faces and another in which they need to rate attractiveness. The researchers mapped neural activity patterns in the visual cortex and saw that brain areas related to facial beauty were active even during the identification task. These results suggest, he said, that our visual cortex always has a beauty detection system running. 3.
Chatterjee previewed a study, now under preparation by Diana Rosa-Leyra in his lab, in which participants had to select from a pair of faces which one was wider. The researchers tracked the path of the computer mouse while people were making the decision. While people chose the correct target in most cases, the researchers found that the mouse drifted toward the more attractive face first before the participants chose correctly. These results suggest implicit engagement of the motor system in judging beauty. (For more on mouse-tracking studies, see this story.) 4.
What is going on when patients have brain damage and their artwork changes for the better? This is a question Chatterjee and others have been exploring. Unlike memory, language, or emotion, art ability sometimes improves after brain damage. (Here is one interesting case.)
While scientists are still trying to understand this phenomenon, Chatterjee suggested that we start thinking of the brain in a new way. Often, he said, scientists think of the cognitive system as a fragile house of cards that, when it collapses, is always something less than the whole. Instead, he said, we should think of the brain as a hanging mobile. Sometimes it may collapse if you remove a piece, or sometimes the whole structure will re-equilibrate in a new way that is in itself appealing. How meta: To reimagine the brain as a piece of art through the lessons of the neuroaesthetics!
Finally, Chatterjee tackled the big question of why we make and appreciate art in the first place. As he said, it’s not like we need art to eat or reproduce. Yet, everywhere in time and space we see art, suggesting it is a universal value or instinct.
To explain some camps of thought on this, he took us back to Charles Darwin, describing the peacock tail as an example of sexual selection without natural selection (it gets in the way of the peacock’s movements but attracts mates). He also said that art may have started for social cohesion, as art production can be viewed as a community endeavor. But the larger point, he said, is that the role of art is dynamic. Over time, environmental conditions have changed from high selection pressures to being more relaxed, changing art consumption and production.
To explain, he pointed to the example of a small bird, the white-rumped munia, that over 250 years was bred by Japanese collectors for color. That meant that over time, the bird no longer mated using its song. Now all that matters for survival is feather color, which was artificially introduced through the breeding.
So what happened to the song? It’s still there but it’s been repurposed. That leads to the possibility that art, like the bird’s song, is something that has been repurposed over time as selection pressures have become more relaxed. Chatterjee said that this possibility is one of many in neuroaesthetics that is ripe for exploration.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz