Can Science Tell Us What Beauty Is?


Gayil Nalls interviews Anjan Chatterjee in Nautilus:

In The Aesthetic Brain, Chatterjee tells us that our ability to have aesthetic experiences has its origins deep in our brains, in the orbitofrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens, and is aided by neurotransmitters such as dopamine, opiates, and cannabibens, which control emotional responses. These responses developed, Chatterjee says, because they were useful for survival. But what happens to our aesthetic sense when the demands of survival are removed?

We caught up with Chatterjee last November at his office in the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennsylvania Hospital, where he is the new head of Neurology…

You’ve suggested that aesthetics stems from prioritizing liking over wanting. How?

When people talk about rewarding experiences in the brain, these tend to be carried out within deep structures of the brain—so parts of our emotional system, parts of the brain that are called the ventral striatum, or the frontal cortex, and the amygdala, and parts of the insula. So there’s this kind of network of brain structures within the brain that seem to be important for how we evaluate things and our reward systems.

Within that, there is a division of two systems that a neuroscientist at [the University of] Michigan named Kent Berridge has referred to as the “wanting and the liking” system. And the general idea there is that we typically like things we want and we want things we like, so these two systems operate in concert, as they should. But they have slightly different neurochemical bases and their anatomy is somewhat different. So one thing tends to be driven by dopamine. As an important neurochemical for our reward system, it’s important for learning, it’s important for movement—so people, for example, with Parkinson’s disease have a deficient state in dopamine and so their movements get constricted; they’re very slow. But [dopamine] is also important for learning and it’s important for our drive to get to things that we desire. Distinct from that is a separate system that is what Berridge calls the “liking” system and this is about the system that is purely the hedonic experience of something and that is mediated by cannabinoid and opioid receptors in the brain. So when people ingest cannabinoids or opioids, the kind of high you get from that is an exaggerated version of how these systems work in the normal brain.

So again, both systems tend to work together in most of our experiences—we want what we like and we like what we want—however, they can get dissociated. One example of a dissociation where you can have wanting without as much liking are in addictive states. So people as they progress and become quite addicted, crave their fix, so this desire to get their fix is extremely exaggerated. But it’s not clear that they enjoy the experience in the same way that they did. So that seems to be a dissociation that moves in one direction.

More here.