May 23, 2019

Breaking down the science of beauty and how it influences creativity


In his 2013 book, The Aesthetic Brain, neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee discusses our brain’s ability to have aesthetic experiences—those deep “magical” moments that leave us in awe. While these responses have evolved out of the same chemical and emotional pathway that helped us survive, they now help us understand why we like the things we like.

What makes an experience aesthetic?

According to Chatterjee, there are certain configurations of sensations and of objects in the world that produce an experience that is qualitatively different than just straight perception.

But what differentiates “aesthetic experiences” from pleasurable ones such as having a good meal or seeing something or someone attractive?

He believes one way aesthetic experiences distinguish themselves is by being self-contained: the experience doesn’t go beyond your own immersion and engagement with experience and it doesn’t come with an impulse to act such as a desire to purchase an object or show it to a friend.

Liking over wanting

Neuroscientist Kent Berridge refers to two systems that work together as part of our brain’s reward system: that of liking and that of wanting. In short, we tend to like the things we want and we want the things we like. Chemically and anatomically, however, they work differently in our brains.

Dopamine’s role in learning is key to helping us get what we want, whereas the “liking” system is purely about pleasure and is mediated by our opioid and cannabinoid receptors. These two systems can be disassociated, however, as in the case of addiction where we want something we don’t necessarily like anymore.

As far as aesthetic experiences go, the liking aspect takes precedence over the wanting aspect; we like for the sake of liking.

The aesthetic triad

Chatterjee and his contemporaries involved in neuroaesthetics believe that there are three means in the brain through which we can have an aesthetic experience and can help understand how our brain is being engaged.

  • Sensor motor circuitry: traditional beauty and scientific sense of “pleasing” aesthetics
  • Emotional and reward circuitry: the wanting and liking system
  • Semantic conceptual circuitry: refers to messages, cultural background, and contextual knowledge

This means that someone could have an aesthetic experience with a piece of art that is not necessarily “beautiful” in the traditional sense but by means of their knowledge of the nuances and concepts behind it and vice versa.

Context and culture

What we consider art and even what is likable to us changes with time and context. Despite our brains having remained largely the same for 150 years, our perceptions of objects that could move us toward an aesthetic experience are fluid and susceptible to influence.

In one Danish study, people were shown abstract images and in one condition, they were told the images were computer-generated with an algorithm. In another, they were told the exact objects were hanging in a gallery. Both the subjects’ verbal responses and imaging of their brain activity suggested they liked the images they thought were in a gallery more.

Our thoughts

Chatterjee’s view of creativity is essentially reconfiguring the problem and seeing it in a different way. He says our current culture emphasizes productivity and a brute force analytic approach to creative solutions without allowing for unstructured downtime—periods of low arousal such as showering or winding down before bed—for organic creative insights to emerge.

For creative people, our perceptions can become our references and our aesthetic experiences our inspirations. But because they can both be shaped and triggered by external contexts, our creativity—that is, our internally derived original thoughts—may very well depend on allocating more of our lives to said downtime. Otherwise, we risk investing more in consuming prevailing narratives instead of writing them ourselves.

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