Q & A with Anjan Chatterjee, M.D., F.A.A.N.

Anjan Chatterjee is the Frank A. and Gwladys H. Elliott Professor and Chair of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital. He is a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. His clinical practice focuses on patients with cognitive disorders, and his research addresses questions about spatial cognition and language, attention, neuroethics and neuroaesthetics. He is the author of “The Aesthetic Brain: How we Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art” and co-editor of “Neuroethics in Practice: Mind, Medicine, and Society” and “The Roots of Cognitive Neuroscience: Behavioral Neurology and Neuropsychology.” We asked him to take us through his ideas, inspirations and aspirations in neuroaesthetics.

IAM Lab: At what point in your education and career did aesthetics come into play as an interest or area of study? Was there a person or experience that sparked your interest?

AC: For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in aesthetic experiences including drawing, and I took sculpture and printmaking classes in college. Later, I became obsessed with photography. The idea of formally studying aesthetic experiences came from a barroom conversation in 1999 at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, where I worked. I often met with Britt Anderson, a neurologist, and Mark Mennemeier, a neuropsychologist, on Friday afternoons to talk about science. I was readying myself to return to the University of Pennsylvania, after having been there as a medical student, to join as an inaugural member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Britt said, “Imagine yourself 10 years into the future and look back. What would you regret if you hadn’t worked on professionally?” I realized that I would be regretful if I did not try to understand the biological bases for beauty and aesthetic experiences.

IAM Lab: In your opinion, is an understanding of neuroaesthetics a “must have” or a “nice to have”? Why?

AC: I do not think that any topic in basic cognitive neuroscience, such as understanding the nature of memory, or emotions, or language is a “must have,” at least not with the same urgency as developing antidotes to war and oppression, poverty and pestilence or violence and degradation. However, I do believe that knowledge for its own sake is critically important. Possible outcomes of such knowledge are not easy to predict. It is clear that we make choices influenced by beauty all the time, like what clothes to wear, what to put on our walls, who to date, objects for which we pay a premium and so on. If one believes that understanding the nature of what it means to be human is fundamental — conditions that allow us to flourish and the non-utilitarian motivations for behavior — then we dare not ignore the role of beauty and aesthetics in our lives.

IAM Lab: As you’ve toured and given speeches about “The Aesthetic Brain,” what have you learned from your readers and audiences? Who is interested in your work that you didn’t expect? What are some of the most common questions you get about neuroaesthetics?

AC: I have learned that interest in neuroaesthetics is wide and deep. Every year students from the humanities and the sciences contact me to find out how they might study empirical aesthetics. The interest among academics across disciplines and other professionals is also astonishing. For example, in addition to neuroscientists, neurologists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists, I have been invited to give talks to art therapists, art historians, architects, literary scholars, philosophers, user interface designers and even plastic surgeons. The most common questions I get asked are: Why is a scientist studying aesthetics? Isn’t beauty subjective? What is beauty good for? Why do we make art?

IAM Lab: Are you currently conducting any research in neuroaesthetics?

AC: We are looking at effects of facial disfigurement on social judgments. Our preliminary data suggest that people view individuals with such disfigurement as less intelligent, less trustworthy, less competent and less kind. Popular media frequently uses disfigurement as shorthand to depict someone of villainous character. We are trying to understand the neural underpinnings of these attributions. We must better understand the reflexive judgments that a disfigured person is a bad person if we aim for an egalitarian society in which people are judged on their behavior and not the happenstance of their looks.

Another line of recent work is looking at how people react to architectural interiors. That is, what emotions and feelings are evoked by such spaces? Here, our strategy is to investigate the way that general properties of interiors, such as whether they are open or closed, have high or low ceilings and incorporate curved or rectilinear forms, make people feel. Many people spend upwards of 90 percent of their time indoors, and yet there is little empirical work on how these spaces affect people.

IAM Lab: What are the most compelling applications of research in neuroaesthetics that you’ve seen or contributed to?

AC: There are many compelling applications of neuroaesthetics research. Let me suggest three. One is the application of aesthetics to built environments. We have a paper under review discussing the relationship of neuroaesthetics to neuroarchitecture. How can the construction of spaces help people flourish, whether in a school, or a hospital or a temple or an office? We hope this paper will anchor future experimental approaches to such questions. Second is the use of art therapy. Many people have deep intuitions about the way that art therapy might help people with various conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to posttraumatic stress disorder. I have argued that we need well-designed treatment studies to establish the efficacy of such interventions. Third is enriching our understanding of design principles. We are surrounded by objects with which we interact. These include computers, cars, mobile devices, furniture, tools, appliances and so on. I am convinced that surrounding ourselves with beautiful objects that give us pleasure beyond their utilitarian value contributes to well being in a deep way.

IAM Lab: Who in the art world would you most like to collaborate with in your work?

AC: True interdisciplinary collaborations require a joint exploration by people who have equivalent interest in a topic. More typically, one person’s interests drive collaborations, with the other person playing a supportive or consulting role. In wanting to avoid these limitations, the artist I would like most to collaborate with is the film director Werner Herzog. Cinema and long form TV are central art forms of this era. Herzog has an extraordinary ability to tell a story that is compelling even as it educates. His movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an excellent example, among many others. Herzog conveys a real sense of wonder in the topics he explores. Wonder is also a fundamental driving force for many scientists. My fantasy would be to collaborate with Herzog on a documentary film about the mysteries of beauty, ranging from its neurological and evolutionary underpinnings to its intersection with culture and its role in history.

Brain Science Cognitive Neuroscience Johns Hopkins Neuroaesthetics