The Aesthetic Brain

How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art by Anjan Chatterjee

Wind, invisible, as it passes through the wild limbs of a cypress tree somehow takes shape. It’s a sight that sneaks-up and often leads one to a stand-still. Van Gogh’s brush immortalized the encounter centuries ago, but the phenomenon was familiar well before his time and continues to arrest those willing to pause in a new millennium. What accounts for this experience we vaguely define as “beautiful,” this often transcendent appreciation for something so common yet so specific? These might not seem like questions for science, yet an emerging field called neuroaesthetics seeks to understand art and beauty from a scientific perspective, by defining the roots of beauty in the brain.

Chatterjee is a neuroscientist, so readers might expect a mechanistic treatise on beauty constructed from PET scans and clinical trials. But he offers no simple marriage of roses and neurons. To begin filling in the blanks left by neuroscience, he draws from anthropology, evolutionary biology, philosophy and personal anecdotes.

In the chapter “Beautiful landscapes,” for instance, Chatterjee discusses the savanna hypothesis, a theory explaining the attraction of young children to savanna-like vistas over other landscapes in side-by-side picture tests. As we grow older, experiences with different environments may alter that preference, but the finding suggests a hardwired attraction to particular landscapes: the lands of our ancestors.

“The savanna hypothesis is romantic,” Chatterjee writes. “It invites us to imagine that we humans are yearning for home, expressing a collective unconscious desire to return to our ancestral roots.” Likewise, symmetries, averages and certain repeating patterns are rated as beautiful across cultures, implying that evolution has shaped human preferences for certain stimuli.

Chatterjee argues that pleasure-seeking lies at the root of the aesthetic experience. But in trying to explain the pleasure of beauty, the question naturally arises: To what end? What value is there in understanding art’s ties to the brain, when art’s livelihood seems to depend on more than a dash of mystery?

As Chatterjee points out, insight is the goal of science and art. His work succeeds by combining both toward a greater appreciation of the human experience.

Oxford Univ. Press, $34.95

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