Neuroaesthetics — The Science of Pleasure : An Interview with Dr. Anjan Chatterjee

Medical doctor, neurologist, and cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. Anjan Chatterjee has dedicated his life to understand how the workings of our mind can be observed in the brain — what patterns our thoughts and dreams make. Fifteen years ago, he developed an interest in aesthetics — what images, sounds, and tastes the brain finds appealing, and more importantly, why. At the time he began his work, there was virtually nothing going on in terms of brain sciences.

A pioneer in the field, he is the former president of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, and one of the foremost scholars in the emerging science of neuroaesthetics. He is also Elliott Professor of Neurology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Brain World had the opportunity to speak with Chatterjee about his latest work.

neuroaestheticsBrain World: What is neuroaesthetics?

Anjan Chatterjee: A long tradition of empirical aesthetics goes back to the 19th century, started by German scientist Gustav Fechner, who thought that one could approach aesthetics as an empirical science. He introduced the idea that you could actually collect quantitative data and learn something about an aesthetic experience — that is, a pleasurable and desirable experience qualitatively different from our everyday lives.

Admiring a beautiful painting or eating a pleasurable meal are things that we don’t do every day, yet we get a great deal of enjoyment out of both. Fechner suspected that we must be able to measure that enjoyment, and determine where it comes from, so he wrote a book on the subject, where he distinguished outer psychophysics from inner psychophysics. He meant that outer psychophysics addressed characteristics of objects that might be beautiful, characteristics that could be quantified, but he also thought that inner psychophysics would have something to do with systematic principles of the nervous system mapped to aesthetic experiences.

However, in Fechner’s day they didn’t really have the technical capabilities of doing an analysis of inner psychophysics. So, in some ways, the last 12 to 15 years has been the realization of his ideas. We conduct imaging studies in healthy people, or examine patients with brain damage, and we look into what happens when they perceive and experience something that gives rise to an aesthetic experience. We use an electroencephalogram, or brainwave correlates and noninvasive brain-stimulation techniques. These are typical techniques and approaches used to investigate neuroaesthetics.

BW: Why did you decide to get involved in this field of neuroaesthetics?

AC: I always have been interested in art and the idea of beauty. Beauty tends to have intrinsic value, which is not applicable to anything else. People spend money on artwork. For example, someone might spend more than $50 million on a Jeff Koons piece. But the piece is not something you can eat, nor does the face of it have any practical value, and yet we spend a lot of time thinking and spending resources on such objects. So there is an inherent paradox in beauty and aesthetic experiences. For me, that makes it an interesting topic to study. Neuroaesthetics, especially experimental neuroaesthetics, is a very young field and generates a lot of interest. There are many questions to answer right now, and that makes it an exciting time to be working in this field.


BW: So, what does happen in the brain when we appreciate art?

AC: There are different ways to appreciate art. We know the most about beauty and we know when people like things. So one way of framing it, which we have done, is thinking about aesthetic experiences in the context of the involvement of three large-scale systems. First are the sensory-motor systems. For visual art, vision will be involved. For music, you will appreciate it through hearing. If it’s a sculpture, it might be through vision but also our motor and haptic systems can be involved, especially sculptures that you can touch and feel. So, sensory-motor systems get engaged.

Second, you have emotional reactions. When you like a work of art, the emotions that accompany this experience engage the reward systems in our brain. Parts of the brain that are activated when we get rewards of different kinds — like food or sex — are also activated when we look at artwork that we like.

BW: So what is the third system that is involved in appreciating art?

AC: It’s knowledge, our semantic systems. The knowledge, the experience and the education that we bring to looking at artwork also have an effect on our appreciation. People who are exposed to art, for example — and there are very robust empirical findings about this — people who are educated in art, are more likely to enjoy abstract art than people who are naive to artwork. So, as you can imagine, a person’s background affects how they look at artwork.

These contextual factors have a big influence in the emotional engagement with the artwork. To give an example, in one study by a group in Copenhagen, abstract images were shown to people in a scanner. In one condition, they were told that images were generated by a computer based on a random algorithm, and in another condition they were told these images were actually abstract works of art hanging in a gallery.

BW: What were the results?

AC: What they were looking at was exactly the same image. But if they were told that the picture was hanging in an art gallery somewhere, they liked it more. Interestingly, when you look at activity in the brain, the parts of the brain responsive to reward seem to be more active under those conditions. So it is not that they are just saying these are nicer works because they think it’s what they’re supposed to say. They actually experience more pleasure if they think the pictures are in a gallery.

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