The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art
by Anjan Chatterjee
Oxford University Press, 2013

Why do we covet beauty? Why does art, which seems to serve little practical purpose, feel fundamental to our lives? Such questions have long fascinated philosophers and artists. Now neuroscientists are weighing in as well.

The Aesthetic Brain explores the field of neuroaesthetics, the science of how our brain experiences and responds to art, music and objects of beauty. Chatterjee, a neuroscientist, argues that an instinct for beauty has helped our species endure. Art is a product of our quest for beauty and knowledge.

The author first walks through the complex neural mechanics of aesthetic experience. When we look at something, whether it is the Mona Lisa or a city skyline, information from nerve cells in the eye's retina travels to the brain's occipital lobes to process what we have seen. If we find these sights beautiful, the brain is flooded with pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters. Beauty is inexorably linked with pleasure.

Chatterjee turns to evolutionary psychology to explain why we are drawn to things of beauty, positing that this urge may have improved our ancestors' chances of survival. Facial symmetry often signaled a better mating partner, and landscapes replete with rolling hills, waterways and blooming plants may have appealed to primitive humans because they provided safe refuge and sustenance.

Of course, our relation with art is more complex than such simplistic theories may suggest. Art is not always beautiful, at least not in a straightforward way. It can be vulgar, bizarre or abstract; it can tell a story, incite emotions or depict a given moment. Take the sculpture Piss Christ, which depicts a crucifix soaked in urine. Chatterjee explains that people viewing this artwork out of context often react with disgust, but those who know that the artist intended to show the horrors of the crucifixion tend to find a deeper meaning in it. Our response to art can be richer and more nuanced than to a pleasing vista or tableau.

Overall, The Aesthetic Brain offers an intriguing overview of the neural and historical underpinnings of beauty and art. Chatterjee, however, may tackle too much in his 244-page book. He attempts to capture the immense topics of aesthetics, pleasure and art while weaving in anecdotes about science, history and even math, which can at times cause him to lose track of his main thesis. Nevertheless, he makes a compelling case that although art and beauty may seem nonessential, they epitomize our search for pleasure and meaning in life.