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The best books on The Neuroscience of Aesthetics

recommended by Anjan Chatterjee

Why is it that following a certain kind of brain damage, some artists' work changes for the better? Neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee speaks to Five Books about how we can deconstruct the way the brain processes aesthetic experiences.


Anjan Chatterjee

Anjan Chatterjee is a Professor of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on spatial cognition and language, attention, neuroethics, and neuroaesthetics, and his book The Aesthetic Brain was published by OUP in 2013. He was awarded the 2002 Norman Geschwind Prize in Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology by the American Academy of Neurology.

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Anjan Chatterjee

Anjan Chatterjee is a Professor of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on spatial cognition and language, attention, neuroethics, and neuroaesthetics, and his book The Aesthetic Brain was published by OUP in 2013. He was awarded the 2002 Norman Geschwind Prize in Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology by the American Academy of Neurology.

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­­What is neuroaesthetics?

Neuroaesthetics is the study of aesthetic experiences as implemented in the brain. It encompasses the reception, the production, and thinking about art-making; it can include aesthetics more broadly—about beauty and other aesthetic experiences and how these experiences affect our behaviour.

What parts of the brain are involved in appreciating aesthetics?

We have a model which we refer to as ‘the aesthetic triad.’ On this model, we think aesthetic experiences emerge out of widely distributed sensory motor systems, emotion and reward systems, and semantic systems.

On the sensory end, you can imagine that if an artwork were very colourful or very dynamic, experience of this artwork might rely on parts of the brain that are specialised to process colour or to process visual motion. Then, if emotions are involved—especially if it’s a beauty response—our reward centres in the brain are co-opted by the pleasure we derive from looking at beautiful objects. But artwork doesn’t have to just be pleasurable. For example, some paintings can be disgusting and those would tap into the basic emotion systems for disgust.

The final piece of the triad is made up of systems that encode our memories and how we understand the world. This piece is important because it can change the experience of any object. If you grew up seeing reproductions of a painting and then later, as an adult, see the original in a museum, you’re going to have a response to that painting based on your personal history. It will be different than mine even if we both enjoy the painting.

“People who have been trained in art history view artworks differently to naïve viewers, as demonstrated by their eye movements”

Beyond personal histories, education matters. People who have been trained in art or art history view artworks differently than naïve viewers as demonstrated by patterns of their eye movements. A robust finding is that abstract art is not liked by people with no art exposure, whereas with a certain amount of art training, people start to like such art. The visual information coming in our eyes is exactly the same; we have the same kind of brain, generally, but knowledge and training and education makes a difference to the nature of the experience.

Am I right in thinking that neuroaesthetics is a relatively new area for research?

Neuroaesthetics is a new field. You can go back to people like Edmund Burke who was interested in how biological factors contribute to aesthetic experiences.  His writings might be regarded as a pre-history of neuroaesthetics. In the late 1990s the field started to cohere. Over the last 15 to 18 years, it’s evolved at a rapid pace. The books I’ve chosen reflect the evolution of this young field.

It must be a challenge: applying the objectivity of science to a subject that’s inherently subjective. Does that cause many problems in devising experimental conditions?

The challenge introduces certain constraints. It is important to understand the kinds of questions neuroscience can address. Anybody who thinks that neuroscience will answer every question about aesthetics is mistaken. Having said that, the idea is that we share considerable brain machinery and we have common responses by virtue of being human. These responses could be emotional such as anger or joy or fear.  I put aesthetic experiences in the category of such responses. It’s something everybody experiences, even if the triggers for those experiences differ across people.

So, you can think of a scientific study of aesthetics—particularly with an eye towards the brain—as asking: ‘What is common to our experiences?’ You can also ask the individual differences question: ‘What makes people react differently to different kinds of artworks?’

Given that this is something that is common to all people, perhaps it’s not so subjective after all.

How common varies by what you look at. For example, there tends to be consistency in how people respond to the question: ‘Is this face beautiful?’  Responses to landscapes are also relatively consistent— although not quite as consistent as faces. Responses to artworks tend to be far more variable. Intermediate are responses to architectural spaces. So, it appears that we respond similarly to natural things, and less consistently to artifactual objects.

From an evolutionary point of view, being able to appreciate beautiful faces and beautiful landscapes, makes perfect sense. It might allow individuals to choose healthier mates, or healthier environments. But why do you think we have the capability of appreciating art? Maybe that question brings us to your first book choice by Ellen Dissanayake.

Ms. Dissanayake was written a number of books of which I chose Homo Aestheticus. Dissanayake was the first person to really address evolution and art-making in a serious way, at least the first book of which I am aware.

Several things are interesting about her and the book. Unlike a lot of books on art, her sources were not confined or even driven by western art traditions. She lived a good part of her life in Asia and her opinions and thoughts were influenced by artwork in Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea and Manchuria. She brings a different approach as compared to many western academics. And she also didn’t rise through the usual university academic system. She is a self-taught scholar. She started to write about something that nobody was pursuing at the time. She was an outsider on both accounts. She has had an important impact on the field. Everything written on evolution and art since then has had to respond to her comments, whether or not in agreement.

“What makes people react differently to different kinds of artworks?”

Her argument is that it doesn’t matter how far back you look in the archaeologic record or in different parts of the word, elements of art-making or a decorative impulse exist. And so, she thinks that this fact at least is prima facie evidence that there is an evolutionary impulse for art-making. She goes on to develop an idea that there’s a generalisable desire to make things special. ‘Making special’ is a specific phrase associated with Dissanayake. She thinks that making special involves ritual and ceremony (in the repetitive form of play). She has a version of this, I think in later writings, about how this behaviour is tied to how a mother makes her child feel special.

She thinks that the evolutionary significance is that these behaviours promote social cohesion in small groups. So, societies in the Palaeolithic age that were small and had had greater degrees of social cohesion were more likely to survive as a group. Her take is that these behaviours of making objects special through ritual is really what we’re talking about when we talk about making art.

Talk of a ‘decorative instinct’ reminds me of animals like the bower bird, who sink great time and effort into collecting coloured items for their nests during courtship. Is ‘art-making’ something that we share with animals?

I am not an expert in animal art-making, although it’s certainly fascinating. I think almost any time—at least in cognitive neuroscience—when we have tried to make strong claims that humans are qualitatively different than other species more often than not we have turned out to be wrong. My take based on what little I know about animal art is that elements of animal behaviour are similar and analogous to what humans do when making art but not in their entirety. So, in the bower bird example, the decorative behaviour is directed at attracting mates. In human art-making, maybe artists do well in the mating game, but we typically think of art-making as having a broader function than being motivated by a search for the best partner possible.

The art instinct and evolutionary biology are subjects you touch on in your own recent book, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

I do touch on these subjects. My book has three sections. On Beauty, Pleasure, and Art. It is written for a non-neuroscientist audience, to give interested people a sense of contemporary neuroaesthetics. I offer a broad framework and locate pleasure as central to the experience of beauty and less central to the experience of art. I discuss the neural basis and the evolutionary underpinnings of beauty and of art. The evolution of art is typically framed as an adaptation, as done by Ms. Dissanayake, or as an epiphenomenon, as suggested by such eminent scholars as Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Pinker. I argue that neither view is satisfying, and offer a third way to think about the evolution of art. You will have to read the book to get a sense of this third way, which, as a teaser, involves a small bird bred over 250 years and 500 generations in Japan.

What is the difference between art and aesthetics? Might you outline the difference?

Sure. We typically think of the domains of aesthetics and of art as overlapping but not identical. We might have aesthetic experiences that have nothing to do with art. Admiring an attractive person or a beautiful scenery. In these examples, people can have profound aesthetic experiences that are not about art. On the other hand, many aspects of art have little to do with aesthetics per se. And this is thinking of aesthetics as a sensory experience. The term came from Baumgarten to mean something like ‘informed sensory experience.’

For example, one might be interested in what happened to art in Europe once the Arabic-Hindu number system was imported. The scholarship of how that happened and its influence on art might be very interesting, but they’re not necessarily aesthetic concerns. So, we need not conflate art and aesthetics.

“People can have profound aesthetic experiences that are not about art”

From a neuroscientist’s point of view, we’re interested in human experience. What is the experience of encountering these objects? There are other scientific questions. There might be material concerns with artwork, like: What kind of materials were used? Do certain chemicals that were used in mixing paints change colour over time as they get oxidised? Those are scientific questions about artwork but they’re not necessary aesthetic questions; nor are they neuroscience questions.

Your next book choice, Inner Vision by Semir Zeki (1999), you have described as ‘having put neuroaesthetics on the map’. Why was this book so ground-breaking?

A couple of reasons. Zeki is a very well known vision neuroscientist. There is a way in which aesthetics is considered soft and not a proper domain of inquiry for a neuroscientist. So here in the late 1990s was a well known neuroscientist saying that aesthetics is worth studying. He also coined the term ‘neuroaesthetics’.

The book is what I refer to as an example of ‘descriptive neuroaesthetics.’ By that term, I mean that someone who knows a lot about the brain applies this knowledge to aesthetic experiences. His initial focus, which is not surprising given his background, was how the visual system is engaged when people look at various kinds of paintings, whether they’re by Rembrandt or Malevich or various abstract expressionists. His focus was on how our visual system processes shape and colour and form and how the hardware of our brain constrains how we view artwork and probably how people make artwork. It was the first time an experienced and reputable neuroscientist took art seriously and proposed that neuroscience was relevant to conversations about art.

Do you think that, armed with knowledge of the visual system and studies like Zeki’s, one could predict what artwork is considered to be very effective or, vice versa, how an artist could make his work better?

I don’t know the answer to that question. When I say his initial book was ‘descriptive’, that’s to contrast it with experimental neuroaesthetics. Experimental neuroaesthetics is where you’re designing experiments to test hypotheses. For instance, we’re conducting work in the aesthetic experience of architectural spaces. We ask the question, ‘are there elemental features of interiors?’ and we’re looking at whether interiors have high or low ceilings, whether they’re curvilinear or rectilinear, and whether they feel open or closed, and what the psychological responses to those kinds of spaces are. Then, trying to see how consistent those responses are, and whether those responses cluster in certain ways.

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The goal is to identify elemental features that apply to architectural spaces and identify elemental responses that most people have to those features in islotation or in combination.  One can imagine that information becoming part of the toolkit of an architect to say: If you want to create this type of environment, these elements will be part of the design of that space. It’s not prescribing exactly what they should do, but, by analogy, if you’re going to make a winter soup, these are the kinds of root vegetables you might consider using.

Your next book is The Neurobiology of Painting, edited by F. Clifford Rose (2006). This is very intriguing in as much as it looks at when the system goes haywire, after brain damage or perhaps in people suffering from migraines or epilepsy. What can we learn from studying neurobiological examples?

In cognitive neuroscience we’ve had a long tradition of trying to understand how the brain works in the setting of brain damage. You can go back a hundred and fifty years to Broca and Wernicke, when our basic understanding of how language works started with studying brain damaged individuals. As a neurologist, I see this all the time.

There are fascinating phenomena that happen with neurological disorders; sometimes, after brain damage, artists’ work ends up appearing more interesting and better liked by critics. That’s not true for everyone but there are enough examples to ask a fundamental question: under what construction of the relationship of art-making and the brain, could improvement possibly happen after brain damage? You don’t ever have a situation where someone has brain damage and their vision is better or their decision-making is better or their language gets better. But here’s this quintessentially human activity that in some people gets better.

“Sometimes, after brain damage, artists’ work ends up appearing more interesting and better liked by critics”

So, one takes a reverse-engineering approach to ask: why are certain types of behaviour that are predisposed to artworks happen in some people with epilepsy? Why is it that with certain kind of brain damage, artwork changes for the better? It’s another way of looking at how the brain is involved in art-making, as distinct from imaging and other techniques.

Have you personally come across interesting cases of neurobiological patients who have changed their artistic output in some way?

Yes, I’ve written about this artist a bit: her name is Katherine Sherwood and she is a professor at Berkeley who, when she was in her forties, was an art teacher and a working artist as well. She was teaching a graduate seminar and suffered a left-hemisphere stroke in the middle of class. After that, she was severely aphasic [unable to speak or understand speech] for a while. She eventually recovered and started painting again, but her painting changed dramatically. She feels that her process changed; she used to be very focussed on details and was very cerebral about her artwork. After her stroke she was looser and her imagery changed. Even before her stroke, she was interested in ways in which depictions of the brain and nervous system play out in artwork but after her stroke she got even more interested in that. She started to think about how angiograms—the radiographic images of blood vessels feeding our brain—look like trees, and used that kind of imagery in her work. She’s a good contemporary example of someone whose artwork changed after brain injury and garnered attention.

Your penultimate book is Feeling Beauty by G Gabrielle Starr (2013). It takes something of an interdisciplinary approach, looking at art in a range of media and the effect on the brain. Could you tell me about this book and why you chose it?

A lot of people extol the value of interdisciplinary work; ‘interdisciplinarity’ is a big buzzword in academic circles. It turns out, it’s actually quite hard to do and even harder to do well. Gabrielle Starr is a humanist—a literary scholar, by training—but she wanted to understand how neuroscience methods work and if they have anything to teach us about aesthetics.

She trained in imaging methods so she would not just be a distant consumer of the technology but would be informed by working knowledge. She collaborated with a neuroscientist named Ed Vessel and they produced a couple of interesting papers. Two ideas underpinning their work are important. One is that, in a lot of cognitive neuroscience right now, rather than thinking about the function of individual parts of the brain, we think of the function of networks. Networks have different nodes with coordinated activity that implement certain functions. The second idea is that their studies introduced a new idea in neuroaesthetic research, particularly by invoking ‘the default mode network.’ This network is activated when people, for example, are daydreaming or their mental orientation is driven inward.

They showed that the paintings that people found most moving kicked the default mode network into gear. The idea is that when an image is especially moving we also turn inward rather than outward. It’s a very interesting finding, and whether at the end of the day it turns out to be true remains to be seen.

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So Gabrielle Starr is an excellent example of a humanist who takes neuroscience seriously and seriously enough to learn some of the methods and conduct a terrific experiment. In her book, she describes the experiment but also writes as someone from the humanities in her analysis of literature, poetry, and music, and art, all nestled around this experimental work.

Do you find generally, from the artistic community, interest towards the neural basis of aesthetics?

I find it covers the whole range. I can only speak for my personal experience, but having given talks widely, I find artists typically to be the most interested. Artists themselves, if I can generalise, strike me as most open-minded to this line of inquiry. They are fascinated about what’s going on and, don’t appear to be threatened by neuroscientists asking these questions and worried that we might be too reductionist.

People in the scholarly humanities are all over the place. Some philosophers are really interested in neuroscience, and some philosophers think that a neuroscientist studying aesthetics is a category mistake- just fundamentally wrong. There are some art historians who are also interested. John Onians is an art historian, for example, who wrote a book called Neuroarthistory. Other art historians think that either neuroscientists make overly grandiose claims—which in some cases is true—or that we are uninformed about the history and the culture of art in our studies- which is also sometimes true. I don’t know that that means, in principle, neuroscientists can’t be better educated and be in more direct conversation with art historians.

I still believe what I believed when I started in the field: there are certain important questions a neuroscientist can ask, there are certain question an art historian or a humanist can ask. They’re not in conflict and they don’t always have to overlap.

It’s clearly a field moving at great speed, and of interest to those in many disciplines. You mentioned that Art, Aesthetics, and the Brain (2015) would be a good book for someone interested in where the field is going now.

This book represents the most comprehensive contemporary take on neuroaesthetics. Most of the authors are investigators who are actively working in the field. It covers art, dance, music. It covers the neuropsychology and the evolution of art that we talked about. If someone wanted to step into this field and ask, what are people doing now? What is the thinking now? Then this book is the place to go.

You’re at the University of Pennsylvania. Where else are researchers working in this field?

I work with a group of collaborators involved in the International Neuroaesthetics Network. There’s a collaborator in Toronto, a collaborator in Mallorca—who was one of the editors of the last book, a very strong lab in Vienna, and in Copenhagen. Recently the Max Planck Institute started a new Institute of Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt focused on music and literature, so that’s an important place. London is another place where interesting work in dance and music is being conducted: especially at the University of London. There’s also a professional organisation that’s been around for over fifty years called the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics that meets every other year. That group is not restricted to neuroaesthetics; it has a range of investigators who approach aesthetics scientifically. It’s a relatively small field, but with a dedicated group. There has been an influx of growing interest in programmes and publications with the field moving from the scientific edge into the mainstream.

When we spoke about your first book, you mentioned the importance of the author having come from a non-Western background or at least having some experience of cultures with a different artistic style. Do you think it’s very important for experiments to take in the whole gamut of human artistic experience?

Sure. I think, as scientists, we’re always looking for generalisable principles. One way to do that is to conduct cross-cultural studies. I think in some instances, for example in questions of beauty, there’s been more work done: i.e., do people across cultures find similar faces beautiful or not? With art, not as much. I think it’s a matter of time before there’s more cross-cultural work in the way in which art affects us.

Typically, the stimuli chosen for experiments are from the western canon. There is an increasing interest in parts of Asia, particularly southeast Asia and China, in aesthetics. As lines of research develop and evolve in these and other parts of the world, they will naturally introduce cross-cultural perspectives. So, one can think of cross-cultural perspectives as western scientists studying other cultures’ artwork or the scientific infrastructures and interests in non-Western cultures developing sufficiently so that they are pursuing neuroaesthetics.

Finally, do you have a favourite artist yourself? And are you able to say why you like them?

I am very fond of Cézanne. He was an important artist who was the source for later trends, such as the cubist sensibility, or the decorative style that Matisse developed. A lot of my other academic work involves thinking about spatial cognition. The way that Cézanne used planes to create volumes and at immerse you in his spatial imagery is extraordinary. He also kept refining his craft over many many years. If I had to pick one artist off the top of my head, he would probably be the one.

Interview by Cal Flyn