Beauty and the Beast

Why is beauty important in our lives? Does it affect our moral judgements? Is the definition of beauty universal or cultural? Prasenjit Sinha seeks answers to these questions from neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee  

  • Published 5.08.18
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It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. But most people make snap judgements about other people based not on the eyes but on the face. The tendency to trust beautiful, symmetrical faces more than uneven or disfigured ones is a primitive impulse. Neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee (in picture below), director of the new Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the Center for Cognitive Studies, has been exploring the neural underpinnings of the aesthetic experience for a while.

Neuroaesthetics is an emerging discipline that studies our perception of art, music, beauty and their influence on our moral and other decisions. In Chatterjee's book, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved To Desire Beauty And Enjoy Art, he uses neuroscience to probe how an aesthetic sense is etched in our minds and evolutionary psychology to explain why aesthetic concerns feature centrally in our lives.

Chatterjee feels that while human beings are hardwired to respond positively to beauty, we must be aware of our biases and train ourselves to not judge people on their looks. He is one of those rare people who practise what they preach - many of the brilliant researchers in his lab have disfigured faces or are otherwise impaired.

At present, apart from studying the effect of facial disfigurement on social judgment, Chatterjee is also probing how people react to architectural spaces. He spoke at length in his Pennsylvania home. Excerpts:

Q You are setting up a neuroaesthetic research centre at the University of Pennsylvania, the first such institute in the United States. What exactly is the goal of this centre?

The goal is to study the nature of aesthetic experiences among humans - a fundamental experience that everybody has. We make choices influenced by beauty all the time, like what clothes to wear, what to put on our walls, who to date, how to comb your hair, objects for which we pay a premium and so on. We make so many aesthetic decisions and yet, people don't know much about the process. Beauty, which is fundamental to human experience, important to how we feel and gives us pleasure and meaning in life, remains very little explored.

Neuroaesthetics also has practical applications. Brain damage can affect aesthetic experiences. Then there is the practical application of art therapy - you can use it to help people who either have a disease or have had a traumatic experience. There are many applications but these are just the outcome, the core goal is to understand something very basic - our aesthetic sense that is such a fundamental part of being human. The science of aesthetics will help you understand why people choose to buy a Mac [an Apple computer] rather than a PC, although both perform almost the same function. The reason they prefer a Mac, and are ready to pay more for it, is because it looks so beautiful.

Q Will this be primarily a postdoctoral research institute?

No, it will be for undergraduate, graduate as well as postdoctoral students. Apart from research, people can also come for sabbaticals. And all of them need not be scientists. We plan to have an artist-in-residence programme that artists interested in science and neuroscience can join. There should be a free exchange of ideas with them: science can inspire art and their art can inspire the questions we ask.

Q Why do you think it is important to invest time, money and resources in neuroaesthetics?

We have been doing research on how people with facial disfigurement (inborn or, say, acid attack victims) are perceived. We found that people make judgments about their characters based on something very superficial - their looks. When people look at faces with this kind of disfigurement, there is an automatic attribution that these people are less intelligent, less honest, less efficient - without knowing anything about them. It's not just a cosmetic problem. We have brain imaging data that shows that when people look at these faces, they have decreased activity in the parts of the brain that are important for empathy. So people are less empathetic to those with disfigured faces, they regard them as less human and, therefore, it becomes easier to not engage with them. Therefore, when these disfigurements are medically corrected, you are actually changing the social dynamics of these people and how they are treated.

Also, there's been a long-standing view that people who are good-looking are also good people. This makes no sense at all. You don't know anything about them. You don't know their history, what they did. We have imaging evidence that when people make moral judgments and beauty judgments, the same parts of the brain are activated. That's probably the reason we ascribe goodness to things that are beautiful. This is a problem, it is not what we want. We want people to judge others based on what they do and not on how they look. This is where ethics comes in as well.

There is another aspect. Medical schools in the US are increasingly getting students to spend time in art museums as part of their course. These days when someone goes to a doctor, they find the doctor spending more time looking at the computer screen than at the patient. They look at data, at results, on the screen. They do not observe the patient. So we are trying to educate the next generation of physicians to go back to observing their patients minutely. So medical schools are sending students to museums to observe curated images as a kind of training. They look at the images and try to understand what is going on. So this is another area in neuroaesthetics that is relevant to medicine.

Q You are saying that aesthetic sense creates a bias towards people who are physically beautiful. Do you hope to change this deep-rooted bias through your research?

My view is that there are very basic, fundamental reactions to certain kinds of natural beauty - I mean faces and places. If you look across cultures and ages, people are fairly consistent about the faces they regard as beautiful. If you look at artwork or architectural spaces, however, beauty norms vary considerably. If you look at landscapes, however, almost everybody will agree on what is beautiful. Take Kashmir valley; there is unanimous agreement that it is very beautiful. So, there are certain domains that have a lot of consistency and others that are highly influenced by culture, personal experience, and education. I think the response to faces and places are ingrained; those reflexes are built into our brains through evolution. That, however, does not mean it is a good thing. One should not assume that if there is a reflex in our brain that we have gotten through evolution we should be comfortable in accepting it as the final step. It may be the first step, but not the final step. I will give you a very clear example that most people would understand.

Our brains are designed to crave sugar and fat. During earlier times, these were scarce commodities. The small groups of people, hunter-gatherers or nomads, needed a lot of nutrition. The idea is that our ancestors were driven to eat and fight so sugar and fat were really important for survival. Today, you can't walk 20 meters in a city without running into something sweet to eat that also has a lot of calories. This has led to the obesity epidemic because we are designed to gorge on sugar and fat. Even though it is hard-wired in the brain, you can change this impulse because in today's environment, gorging on sugar and fat is not advantageous. In the same way, I think we need to be aware of our bias towards beauty (and attributing positive characteristics to it) and work towards changing it.

In India, the classic example is a preference for fair skin. Fair skin is somehow regarded as more beautiful than dark skin. These are cultural biases and people need to try to overcome such biases.

Q What is your perception of beauty?

In my book, The Aesthetic Brain, I have written that beauty is not a single concept. There is the beauty of places, the beauty of faces and the beauty of mathematics. We say this is an elegant proof, a beautiful theorem but this aesthetic experience is different because it has no sensory qualities. It is different from our appreciation of a piece of art or music. So I think you have to take each of those on its own terms.

For me when it comes to beauty, pleasure is the key. It has to be something which evokes pleasure. Without pleasure, I think there's no beauty. However, it can't be only that, because if you put a drop of sweetened water on your tongue, it gives pleasure but we don't call that beautiful. There has to be a level of complexity involved as well. You can, however, call a Bengali dessert beautiful. It is complex and there's a whole feeling around that.

Q What do you expect in the field of neuroaesthetics, especially at this new centre, after 10 years?

That's a long time; I will probably retire by then (laughs). It's very exciting to start this centre, especially because I think aesthetics is fundamentally important to what it means to be human. I am hoping that in 10 years' time everybody accepts this as an important scientific domain - both the science of aesthetics and its applications.

I think appreciation of beauty really matters. You know there's a Chinese proverb: if you have two pennies, spend one penny to buy bread and the other to buy a lily. Both these are equally important. You can't live by bread alone.

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