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Your Brain on Aesthetics: People, Places, & Things

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

by Kaile Smith, Marella Campagna, Victoria Lazzari, Saskia Wheeler, & Ava Young

What makes something beautiful? What happens in our minds when we interact with artworks or architecture? Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, M.D. addressed these thought-provoking questions and many others in a recent talk at Goldsmiths, University of London. Chatterjee is a lecturing professor of Neurology, Psychology, and Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and is a prolific trailblazer in the field of neuroaesthetics. He is most well-known for his Aesthetic Triad model of aesthetic experience (Figure 1; Chatterjee & Vartanian, 2014) and founded the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, one of the first labs in the world dedicated to the intersection of neuroscience and aesthetics.

Fig 1. The aesthetic triad describes aesthetic experiences as “emergent properties,” that arise out of sensory inputs and responses in the brain’s visual and motor systems, which combine with our emotions and contextualise within our past experiences, culture, and surroundings. (Chatterjee & Vartanian, 2014)

But what makes an aesthetic experience beautiful or pleasing, and are there differences between how we experience different objects in our environment? Chatterjee highlights that there are three distinct ways our visual system processes the exterior world, as people, places, or things. He opens this discussion with people, by exploring how we experience faces.

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Our perception of faces and facial beauty is actually surprisingly universal (Cunningham et al., 1995). Using fMRI techniques, research has found that the visual system automatically responds to beauty in faces even while we are not consciously evaluating it (Chatterjee et al., 2009). This activation, particularly in the occipital lobes (visual brain areas) is correlated with the degree of attractiveness, in which the most attractive faces elicit the strongest neural responses (Figure 2).

Fig 2. Brain regions showing cortical neural responses to explicit (on the left) and implicit (on the right) judgments of facial beauty, specifically in the Fusiform face area (FFA) and Lateral occipital complex (LOC). The color scale (red-yellow) indicates the degree to which facial beauty positively modulated neural responses. (Chatterjee et al., 2009)

Furthermore, Chatterjee’s lab found that attractive faces not only stimulate visual attention but can also change how we move (Faust et al., 2019). In a behavioural experiment, they discovered that both hand and eye movements of participants were more pronounced when viewing attractive faces relative to less attractive faces. In essence, we can be moved by beauty.

Knowing that we all have these automatic responses towards facial beauty, leads to questioning if there are broader consequences for society. Common knowledge and much research recognises that our social interactions are more positive with those we consider attractive (Langlois et al., 2000).

Fig 3. Participants made judgments of individuals before and after they received corrective treatment for their disfigurement. (Jamrozik et al., 2019)

Chatterjee’s lab found further evidence supporting the relationship between attractiveness and positive social interactions by studying behavioural responses to facial disfigurements (figure 3; Jamrozik et al., 2019). People tended to perceive those with facial abnormalities more negatively across personality judgments, cognitive abilities (e.g., lower intelligence), and social assumptions (e.g., less popular) compared to attractive faces. The origin of this innate negative bias towards unattractiveness may be the result of decreased activation in the anterior cingulate cortexan important brain region involved with theory of mind. This lessening of viewing a person as having a mind, may be a psychological mechanism towards dehumanization (Hartung et al., 2019).

Fig 4. Examples of popular films using facial abnormalities to signal villain characters.

Put simply, unattractive faces may be more disliked because they are perceived as less deserving of empathy, an unfortunate proclivity that is commonly exploited in pop culture's representation of villains (figure 4). In perceiving beauty in faces, or the lack thereof, humans tend to have a bias in their neural and behavioural responses: attractiveness warrants pro-social interactions and unattractiveness does not.

While a significant amount of Chatterjee’s research has focused on faces, he also champions the idea that our physical environment can be aesthetically impactful too. As the majority of our time is spent indoors, it is essential to understand how architecture influences our wellbeing. An early study from his lab explored whether the brain’s response to architectural beauty shows the same activation seen in response to other beautiful things, like attractive faces (Vartanian et al., 2013).

Fig 5. Stimuli presented to participants varied in three dimensions. Perceived enclosure – open, enclosed; Ceiling height – high, low; Contour – curvilinear, rectilinear. (Vartanian et al., 2013)

With the help of architectural experts, the researchers identified images (figure 5) displaying various architectural design elements (i.e., ceiling heights, room shape, openness) and asked participants for beauty ratings of each. They found increased activation of the ventral medial prefrontal cortex in response to perceived architectural beauty, which suggests that our aesthetic appreciation of faces and places are very similar.

Recently, Chatterjee and his lab combined insights from fMRI brain imaging 6 and semantic network analysis (figure 6) to deeper understand what informs our environmental aesthetic judgments (Coburn et al., 2020). They discovered that three main characteristics of architecture seem to underpin how good or bad an environment makes us feel.

Fig 6. Visualisation of the semantic network for architectural aesthetics. (Coburn et al., 2020)

1– fascination (how much you would want to explore), 2– hominess (how comfortable you feel), and 3– coherence (how organised the space feels). Most surprisingly, they found that within the occipital cortex, our visual system is capable of distinguishing between these three architectural components. Previously, this level of differentiation was thought to only occur elsewhere in the brain. Chatterjee assures us that these continued developments are just beginning and that he hopes to continue investigating our experiences with architecture environments in a real-world setting, using mobile EEG and infrared spectroscopy, as he acknowledges laboratory settings cannot capture the full experience of being somewhere.

Finally, Chatterjee rounded out his talk by examining the nature of our aesthetic engagements with artworks. A surprising and not-well-understood finding in the neuroscience of art, is the activation of the motor system in response to static artworks (Umilta, et al, 2012). Some hypothesise that this is an approach-avoidance response (Ishizu & Zeki, 2011), while others suggest it may be an physiological mirroring in the same brain regions responsible for the of the artist's movements (Freeberg & Gallese, 2007). A recent study from Chatterjee’s lab asked if this motor activation impacts aesthetic appreciation (Humphries et al., 2020). They examined whether motor impairments in someone with Parkinson’s disease had an influence on their aesthetic experience. By comparing Pollock’s “action paintings” to Mondrian’s more static “neo-plastic paintings,” (figure 7) they found that people with Parkinson’s disease had significantly lower perception of movement in both types of artworks, and found evidence of a substantially altered relationship between motion and aesthetic appreciation.

Fig 7. Example Stimuli. 1 & 2 are by Piet Mondrian; 3 & 4 are paintings by Jackson Pollock. (Humphries et al., 2020)

After taking us through the breadth of his research in exploring the underpinnings of our aesthetic experiences, Chatterjee finished his talk with a call to action. He wants to inspire a new generation of aesthetics researchers to keep seeking answers to difficult and unasked questions regarding the nature of aesthetic experiences. He stresses that it is incumbent upon us all to demonstrate why aesthetics matter in a world that is continually undermining the importance and transformative potential of art.


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