Anjan Chatterjee, neuroscientist, on his photograph of a beach in Margate, New Jersey.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
AC I chose this photograph because I’d taken it a couple of days before you contacted me and I was working on it at the time. So, as an example of an image that captures beauty, it was foremost in my mind. Some other reasons: In some ways, taking a beautiful photograph of a beautiful scene is one of the hardest things to do. The beauty of the scene can get in the way of making a beautiful image. This image also serves as a vehicle to talk about the way a neuroscientist might approach questions of beauty, such as which aspects of beauty are universal and which are individual? What components contribute to our sense of beauty?
GB I wanted to ask you if you’d chosen something that’s a prototype or if it holds a special beauty just for you too.
AC I think both. For me, those are the interesting questions – what aspects of beauty are universal that tell us something about our collective humanity and relationship to the world. And what aspects of beauty are highly individual that tell us something about a person’s own lived experience and their view of the world. I think both these questions of beauty are equally interesting.
GB I interviewed a psychotherapist who doesn’t believe in universal beauty because everything has associations for us.
AC I believe in universal beauty. But, it is an empirical question. The way that one tries to address the question is to look at peoples’ reactions to objects across different cultures and also among infants, presumably before they’ve been very influenced by culture. If you find consistencies, the inference is that there’s something universal in how we value the world with respect to beauty. Not to say that there aren’t huge individual differences based on culture, history and context. Our views can be shaped by when and where we live and our very personal histories. The example of the image that I’ve chosen of the beach is a specific spot that I’ve photographed many times. So it has a personal significance in the sense that it’s a location I like to look at and see it change over time even as it remains deeply familiar.
GB When you photograph it, is that for work, or because you feel you want to share the beauty or replicate and preserve it in some way?
AC I’ve done photography as an amateur for 25 years. For the longest time it was a private passion. I used to develop my own prints although I wouldn’t show them to anyone beyond a few close friends. I think the digital world has provided a way to show these images more widely, so I do display them on websites like Flickr, but I think for the most part it’s is an activity anchored in a private exploration.
GB What do you think about people who don’t really believe in beauty and think that it may have been replaced by other things, such as sentimentality?
AC I think beauty exists. It may not be a natural kind in the way that philosophers talk about natural kinds. In my book, The Aesthetic Brain, I talk about beauty as a mongrel concept. There are different reasons for why different things give us beauty. But I do think beauty is something tied together in a core aesthetic triad, which refers to engagement with our sensory and motor systems, interactions with our emotional circuits and influences of semantics and knowledge. I think central to beauty is a nuanced pleasure that is hard to put into words, but it is the essential ingredient of our experience of beauty. I find it bewildering when people say that beauty doesn’t exist. One can say it isn’t important or it’s devalued but that’s a different debate.
GB Do you think there’s any link between what goes on in our brains when we perceive beauty and religious experience? Is this why some people may think our relationship with beauty is a kind of transcendent experience?
AC For the ancient Greeks, beauty, truth and goodness were core human values. There is research to suggest we often associate beauty with good – even when it’s not necessarily justified. For example work in social psychology shows that attractive people are typically given higher pay for the same work. If they commit infractions they’re given less punishment. People assume that attractive children are smarter than they necessarily are. So I think these other social attributes are assigned to beauty and it is an active question in neuroaesthetics research – of whether the parts of the brain that compute beauty might also share neural structures with those that assess morality and justice. So it’s not necessarily a religious link, but there is a sense in which beauty overlaps with other transcendent values.
GB With your picture is your response mostly sensation? Does it have an emotional appeal or a meaning for you?
AC The image I chose has certain tensions. People typically approach beautiful objects. That morning was incredibly cold and I found myself stepping backwards from the waves. The most fundamental axis of movement for any organism is approach and avoidance. So you might want to approach beauty but also stand back from it in this instance. I don’t like being cold but there was something about that scene that stopped me. We sometimes use the word stunning to describe things that are beautiful. You can literally be stunned into not moving. My visceral reaction to the light and the forms felt emotional, again emotions not easily put easily words but hopefully conveyed in the image.
GB You say in your book that we perceive something as beautiful in milliseconds.
AC Yes there’s an automatic response to beauty that happens very quickly and then there’s a subsequent re-evaluation. I think the later response is when aspects of meaning come into play and interact with this initial response.
GB Could you ever tire of looking at this scene?
AC Well in this instance what made me walk away from the scene was the pain in my fingers from the cold! The movement of the water and the changing light meant that I could look at a scene like this for a long time. Sometimes it becomes less interesting as the light changes.
GB That’s very different from our preference for complex landscapes based on natural selection.
AC Yes, the natural selection arguments for beauty in landscapes have to do with scenes that implicitly suggest sources of nourishment and aspects of safety. That’s what the research seems to show and kids up to the age of eight are fairly consistent in the landscapes they choose as being more attractive than others. I think when children get older personal histories and experiences come into play. There are those landscapes into which you can gaze for hours where people have transcendent experiences. You feel lifted out of yourself and your personal concerns seem quite petty in the scheme of things.
GB You’ve chosen something that’s an example of liking without wanting. There’s nothing man-made there apart from the picture itself. Do you think this is in some way a better form of beauty? Could beauty have become linked to morality through liking without wanting?
AC I think that the liking and wanting distinction is an important one. We tend to like things that we want and we want things that we like. But they don’t have to go hand in hand. The neural systems for liking and wanting typically work in concert but they can get disconnected. The classic example of wanting without liking is what you see in addiction as it evolves to the point where people increasingly crave a drug (or whatever they’re addicted to), without liking it very much. There seems to be something important in the ideas of eighteenth century theoreticians like Kant and the Earl of Shaftsbury, the idea of a disinterested interest: the way in which beauty can deeply engage us and at the same time expunge us of an acquisitive impulse. So I think that this uplifting sense could be a way in which beauty is related to issues of moral values.
GB Or it could be more selfish in that we enjoy being freed from anxiety over how to possess it and whether we might lose it again.
AC, Yes, but I would suggest that the desire to possess things and control them can certainly give us pleasure and is part of our make up as humans. That desire is probably not at the core of an aesthetic experience of beauty.
GB Do you think there’s any neuroscientific basis for beauty being a promise of happiness?
AC Happiness is a hard word for me, so it’s hard to know what to make of that promise. It’s easier for me to think in terms of well-being. I think beauty is a source of well-being. I’m interested in how art and the experience or production of beauty can be used in a therapeutic context, making people feel better. Beauty, for the most part, makes us feel good.
GB Do you think there are any people who can’t experience beauty?
AC We’re looking at people with various kinds of brain damage and how this affects their experience of artworks. The problem with beauty and measuring peoples’ preferences is that there’s inherently no right answer. You might like Jackson Pollock and I might like Rothko and it’s very hard to say that one is more correct than the other. The strategy we’ve been using is to say that peoples’ judgments of beauty ought to be internally consistent, whatever their metric. So the idea is that if they demonstrate inconsistencies, there is something wrong with their internal measure or at least their reporting of that measure. We have preliminary data that have been presented in abstract form but not yet published, that people with schizophrenia can answer descriptive questions about art accurately and consistently, but they are inconsistent in their preference choices. I think pleasure is the key and there are situations where people don’t experience pleasure (the medical term for that condition is anhedonia). I suspect that when people’s experience of pleasure is abnormal or disrupted or flattened, their experience of beauty will similarly be impaired.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
AC Beauty is something that captivates us. At its core it is linked to pleasure but the pleasure itself can be nuanced and difficult to put into words. Beauty stops us short. It engages our senses as well as our thoughts and imagination. It opens us up and lifts us beyond our immediate concerns and gives us a deep sense of well-being.