Neuroaesthetics and the Environment

February 26, 2017

I have just finished reading a fascinating book by the Penn neuroscientist, Anjan Chatterjee, called The Aesthetic Brain. The author is one of the founders of the new Neuroaesthetics Institute at Johns Hopkins Medical School. His book has the most comprehensive survey of research on art and the brain that I have encountered.

One of Chatterjee’s conclusions is that art is not an “instict” in humans, but rather emerges when we are under little pressure to adapt to environmental forces. He likens human art to the songs of the Bengalese finch–birds which have emerged after about 250 years of breeding by the Japanese, for use as pets. Unlike a peacock’s tail, which has evolved to attract females during mating, the finch’s songs are improvisational and not strictly necessary for survival. They may please other finches, but don’t attract them.

I don’t quite agree with Chatterjee on this point, particularly with regard to the relationship between humans and the built environment. Humans create beautiful landscapes, houses, and piazzas not only for sheer pleasure but also because they nurture us–just as food tastes good but also gives us sustenance. Our taste for certain kinds of flavors directs us to eat nourishing foods and avoid toxins.

We know that the brain responds positively to certain kinds of landscapes and not to others, to beautiful faces, to pleasingly proportioned bodies, and even to certain proportional relationships. These things are part of an aesthetic facility, but could also have other functional purposes. For instance, wayfinding and movement are enhanced by our capacity to analyze scenes in the environment. Humans are also quite sensitive to qualities in places and spaces that are familiar, pleasing, and sustaining. There is even a part of the brain associated with place awareness.

My friend John Massengale, an urbanist and architect, is working on a conference dealing with the perception of place that may take place in England next year. I hope that some of the science there will enlighten us on why the environment has aesthetic affect on our brains. I am not a scientist, but I firmly believe that beauty in our surroundings isn’t just “nice” but unnecessary. I think that brain science will eventually prove this and other things about architecture that have been common sense understandings for centuries.

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