“The Aesthetic Brain” by Anjan Chatterjee: Beauty, Pleasure and Art through the Lens of Neuroscience and Evolution

The Aesthetics Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art by Anjan Chatterjee (2014, Oxford University Press)

I love it when scholars make serious attempts to bring together the sciences and the humanities—this is why I was immediately drawn to the book The Aesthetics Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art by Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The book is divided into three parts: “Beauty”, “Pleasure” and “Art”. These perennial issues are seen by the author through the bifocal spectacles of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. “A focus on the brain,” he writes in the Preface, “will help us understand the how of aesthetics, and frameworks from evolutionary psychology will help us understand the why of aesthetics.” The book promises to be an empirical guide to aesthetics, offering “scientific answers without deflating the wonders of beauty and art”.

The whole book is chock-full of amazing references and insights and deserves multiple readings. Here I want to share a very thought-provoking portion from the chapter “Money” from part two “Pleasure”. In a discussion on casinos, Chatterjee writes that casino ads emphasise the chances of winning without ever mentioning the greater chances of losing. People see a raffle ticket that has a 10% chance of winning and will buy it because that is what is being advertised. Why don’t we register the fact that there is a 90% chance of losing here? Why do we gamble away our resources without seeing the complexity of the proposition before us? The author explains:

Why do we behave in ways that let casinos take our money? How could such short-sighted behavior possibly be adaptive? The answer to this question is that our environment has outgrown our paltry Pleistocene brains. Our ancestors evolved in the Pleistocene era to survive in what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins called the “Middle World”—that is, the physical environment between the very small and very large, between the world of cells and the universe of galaxies. Perceptually, we are tuned to objects between these extremes. We need microscopes to see tiny objects in close and telescopes to see huge objects far away. A similar phenomenon happens with time and social complexity. We are not built to understand effects over very short or very long periods of time. This intrinsic insensitivity to long durations probably contributes to the controversies over climate change and even evolution itself.

 

“Why do we behave in ways that let casinos take our money? How could such short-sighted behavior possibly be adaptive?” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

Our brains also evolved in social environments that were less complex than they are now. In the Pleistocene era, there was relatively little division of labor. There were no capital markets or accumulations of extraordinary wealth. Exchange was about food, clothing, and social favors and not about insurance, equities, and synthetic collateral-debt obligations. Most early humans lived in groups that numbered in the 10s to 100s. These groups grew into the 1,000s only in the last 10,000 years. The idea that financial decisions and consequences now involve billions of people is beyond our natural comprehension. Our Pleistocene heritage created quick-and-dirty shortcuts, making use of Pavlovian and habitual decisions, that can now seem out of place and irrational. As societies have become larger, more complex, and more anonymous, we are still accommodating biases that worked well in an earlier time, but now appear irrational.

 

“Our Pleistocene heritage created quick-and-dirty shortcuts, making use of Pavlovian and habitual decisions, that can now seem out of place and irrational.” [Image: A spot in Northern Spain during the Pleistocene era (2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago) showing woolly mammoth, cave lions eating a reindeer, tarpans, and woolly rhinoceros by User “Mauricio Antón”, CC BY 2.5, Wikipedia]

The author adds a little later:

Money shows us how short-term pleasures compete with long-term pleasures. It shows us how we often behave in automatic and emotional ways rather than in strictly rational and deliberate ways. Some of our behavior with money doesn’t make a lot of sense until we realize that our Pleistocene puttering brain does not always keep pace with the modern world.

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Learn more about Anjan Chatterjee and his project in these videos:

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