Haverford Conversation: Anjan Chatterjee ’80
What makes someone (or something) beautiful? How is beauty related to pleasure? And why does art—which isn’t always, strictly speaking, beautiful—seem to be a fundamental part of our humanity? These are just a few of the questions that Anjan Chatterjee seeks to answer in his book The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. But Chatterjee isn’t an art historian, anthropologist, or philosopher exploring these questions of aesthetics. He is a professor of neuroscience and physician at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the field of neuroaesthetics, which uses neurological research to investigate how encountering beauty and appreciating art affect brain function. And though aesthetic preferences can seem personal, ephemeral, or hard to explain, Chatterjee offers scientific reasons and empirical evidence to illustrate the brain’s—and therefore, the human—experience of beauty. David Cook ’64 talked to Chatterjee about his research.
David Cook: So, is beauty universal?
Anjan Chatterjee: People often hear the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which suggests that people differ in what they regard as [beautiful]. The curious thing is, when you look at this, there is considerable consistency in what people regard as beautiful. Faces, for example, are the paradigmatic object that people think of as being beautiful or not beautiful. Most of the research shows that judgments of facial beauty are consistent across cultures and even perhaps, more surprisingly, that infants tend to look at faces that adults think of as beautiful more than they do at faces that are less beautiful. And presumably, this is happening before culture had a tremendous influence on how infants view the world. Having said that, culture and personal histories certainly play a role, and I think probably star modifying how we think of beauty, or experience beauty—[it] starts modifying how we think of beauty, or experience beauty—[it] starts modifying this core experience that is likely to be hardwired.
DC: How is art related to beauty?
AC: Many people think of art and beauty as closely related. In fact, if you do surveys of people, just on the term “aesthetics” they link it to beauty more often than any other term. But this flies in the face of what happens when many people, for example, go to contemporary-art galleries, where it’s not clear that beauty is even relevant anymore. That fact has proven to be a challenge for scientists that are trying to understand why we have such a thing as art and what the parameters are that make something art. Those sets of questions were among the most difficult that I tried to address in the book.
DC: How did being a philosophy major at Haverford influence this work?
AC: I think it made me be interested in ideas in general. At the time, the Haverford philosophy department dissuaded people from becoming academic philosophers. Their goal was to infect different fields with people who thought philosophically. And that education, I think, made me become a cognitive neurologist, because questions of the mind seemed the most interesting thing that a neurologist or even a biologist could be asking. Many people go into neurology with this interest, but relatively few people make it the focus of their profession. I think my education in philosophy is what kept me motivated to pursue this general area.
DC: In neurology there has been a fair amount of information generated, especially in view of the new neuroimaging capabilities, of how brain injuries affect higher cortical function. Do you have any views on the effect of brain injury on certain aspects of aesthetic functioning?
AC: That’s a really interesting question, and one I don’t address in this book. [It] may be the subject of a future book. Occasionally when you have brain injury, in a paradoxical way, some functions actually get better than they were before the brain injury. This does not happen very often. But, it turns out, the artwork of some artists has been thought to improve after the onset of their [neurological] disease. And this phenomenon provides a model for us to think about how aesthetic production is organized in the brain and why it would be possible that injury could improve such a complex ability.
DC: What do you see as the future of the field of neuroaesthetics?
AC: Neuroaesthetics is at a critical inflection point. I think it is poised to enter into the mainstream, but is not in the mainstream right now. Increasingly, I have students asking me about studying this field. I get invited to give talks about this topic outside of the neurosciences. But our institutions are typically conservative and tend to lag behind new intellectual movements. The biggest problem for progress in neuroaesthetics is the lack of funding right now, which puts limits on progress in the field. Many people think that interdisciplinary work is good and desirable, [yet] at the same time, it’s risky for young scholars to engage in because the institutional means by which we are provided incentives and rewards don’t lend [themselves] naturally to interdisciplinary work.
David G. Cook, M.D., practiced and taught neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital until 2006, by which time he was a clinical professor at the University of Pennsylvania.