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Unraveling the Science of Beauty and Art

Dr. Anjan Chatterjee

When two people look at the Mona Lisa or a Jackson Pollock painting, they often form completely different conclusions. What makes them like or dislike the art comes down to neuroaesthetics – the biological study that aims to understand how humans process beauty and art.

It’s a field that received a significant boost in 2018 when Penn Medicine launched the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, the nation’s first research center dedicated to uncovering the biological basis of aesthetics. The center will advance the understanding of human nature and preferences with consumer choices, the principles of design, and the appreciation and production of art. In short, things that give people meaning in their lives.

Advancing the World of Aesthetic Experience

Leading the center is Anjan Chatterjee, MD, currently Chair of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital and the Elliott Professor of Neurology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who is assembling an interdisciplinary team of experts in neuroscience, psychology, business, architecture and the arts.

“Even though aesthetics affect countless decisions – from what you wear in the morning to who you date – little of the psychological and neural underpinnings of aesthetics are known,” says Dr. Chatterjee. “People’s aesthetic choices make them feel better and affect how others treat them.

“This center allows us to bring together, build upon and advance knowledge of the mysterious world of aesthetic experience,” he continues. “Our goal is to evolve basic and translational research, educate the next generation of scholars, and serve as a hub for creative experts interested in the nature and neural basis of beauty, art and architecture.”

The center focuses on three programmatic elements: basic science, translational science and communication. Experts from across Penn will investigate the neural system that underlies aesthetic experiences and choices, answering provocative questions dealing with how the pleasure of beauty differs from primary pleasures like food, whether beauty affects values such as morality, and how context and education affects aesthetic experiences.

“For instance, is there a common neural currency to beauty?” Dr. Chatterjee says. “Neuroscience offers possible answers to questions that philosophy poses about why we gravitate toward beauty, enjoy it and try to reproduce it. Art doesn’t feed us, clothe us or shelter us. So why do we care about it?

“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.”

A Collaborative Approach

The center will also investigate the applications of neuroaesthetics to medicine and culture, uncovering how aesthetic experiences can be used therapeutically. For example, can architectural design be used to help well-being in patients, such as those with memory problems? Would exposure to art enhance medical student training?

Additionally, the center has a goal to expand its hub of specialists to host scholars from around the world and artists in residence. Dr. Chatterjee also wants to partner with institutions like the Barnes Foundation to complement the center’s agenda.

“We expect to have an artist who is interested in the nature of memory spending time in the lab with us, creating a true collaboration between art and science,” Dr. Chatterjee says. “Collaboration could take place with a psychologist who studies decision-making and reward systems; a Wharton professor interested in how purchasing decisions are made; or a faculty member who studies a remote tribe with little exposure to the Western world and our media-saturated culture.”

Neuroaesthetics At Work

The “real world” applications of the center’s work are far reaching. Consider just one area: the hiring process.

“Attractive people are often perceived as being smarter, friendlier, more energetic and more qualified for a job,” Dr. Chatterjee says. “On the flip side, people with things like small scars, facial abnormalities or who aren’t perceived as attractive have all kinds of implicit bias against them. These triggers have deep roots in our biology, but we have a huge frontal lobe that can counteract them.”

The Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics is just the latest example of how Penn Neurology is breaking new ground.

“Penn has extraordinary strengths that make it the right place for such an innovative center,” says Frances E. Jensen, MD, FACP, Chair of Neurology at Penn. “Beyond the rich research environment, our strengths in cognitive neuroscience and academics set us apart. These are early days in the discipline of neuroaesthetics and this new center will shape the field for years to come.”

Dr. Chatterjee echoes that sentiment, noting that most people working in the field of neuroaesthetics are largely doing so in isolation.

“We want to change that. It’s our hope that our center will become a home for researchers from around the world,” he says.

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