Summary of The Aesthetic Brain by Anjan Chatterjee

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Aesthetic Brain by Anjan Chatterjee

In order to survive, humans basically need food, water and to successfully reproduce. Everything else is just material. However, this does not explain the need to be surrounded by art and beauty. Why do humans feel the need to create paintings, dances and music as opposed to just living and creating new life? Did it develop as a social activity to build relationships or more a recreational activity to signal times of safety?

Even more so than its origins, the more interesting question is how our modern lifestyles contribute to our idea of beauty itself. Research in these areas is still ongoing but what we know so far paints an interesting picture.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • What makes a face beautiful?
  • How art evolved
  • Why art is hard to define
  • External influences on our perception of beauty

Key lesson one: What makes a face beautiful?

We all know the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but in reality, beauty is somewhat already defined in our brains. You might think that this is highly unlikely but it has actually been proven in many studies. The human brain automatically responds to beauty and what it finds attractive. One study included people comparing two computer-generated faces to gauge their similarity to one another. It was a simple request and had nothing to do with beauty but when their brain activity was analyzed it was found that their visual cortices showed an increase in activity when they saw an attractive face. This showed that their brains were unconsciously reacting to attractive faces.

This automatic reaction to good looks also explains why we have higher opinions of attractive people. Good looking people tend to receive higher grades, attain better jobs and get higher salaries. So, what does the brain perceive as beautiful? Three things have been identified by scientists. These are averageness, symmetry and sexual dimorphism. Averageness simply means that humans find average features more attractive than those that are more unique. Medium-sized noses are preferred over those that are too big or too small and eyes are most attractive when they are evenly spaced. This leads us to the next point, symmetry. This may be the most important one of the three as symmetry is essentially considered a sign of good health and immunity. Lastly, sexual dimorphism refers to the features that distinguish the genders. So typical female features are found to be more attractive on females as opposed to males and vice versa. 

This ability to appraise attractiveness is one that has evolved as humans did. Just the same as the different parts of the human body have a specific, primitive function, the brain has also developed this specific function. And it has been passed on generation after generation because it serves one particular purpose that is essential for our survival. Attractiveness is an indicator of good health and fitness. These are traits that are important when finding a mate to successfully reproduce with to produce healthy offspring. This is why symmetry is such an important factor in judging good health. Many diseases and even parasitic infections result in asymmetrical physical features along with other abnormalities in the face. Thus asymmetrical features indicate a weak immune system and problematic health. 

But beyond defining a beautiful face, the human brain also has a preference for landscapes as well. No matter if you believe that you prefer the look of an island getaway, the brain actually prefers the look of the African savanna. Scientists have theorised it is because it is conducive to survival. The savanna is wide and open, making it easy to spot predators and food. It also has trees to climb when a quick getaway is needed. It is an ideal landscape for all our primitive needs and still remains the choice of landscape for humans when questioned.

Key lesson two: How art evolved

There are two possible reasons for the development of art amongst humans. Firstly, it is thought that art could be instinctual. If this is true, this means that art has some sort of evolutionary purpose helping humans survive in some way. Art could have strengthened social bonds in the group considering that it was often connected with rituals. These were times in which people came together and singing and dancing could have brought people closer together. A close-knit group would most likely work together and would be more likely to survive. 

The second reason is that art exists as a by-product of evolution. This argument would mean that art has no real purpose, it is not a product of nature but more a human artefact. However, it is hard to believe that art is part of our lives by pure accident. The fact that kids are naturally creative and do not need to be taught to draw or sing on their own indicates that these skills are present inherently. Although these two reasons hardly satisfy how art developed, there is one more which could explain it. Maybe humans developed the mental capacities needed for art but only expressed them when they felt that they were in a secure environment. 

Whichever it may be, art has been and will always be integral to human life.

Key lesson three: Why art is hard to define

If you really think about it art is all around us. Graffiti in alleyways, paintings in an art gallery and even the kids drawings we all seem to have on the refrigerator. In fact, creativity comes naturally to kids but art itself is an important part of life. 

Some cave paintings are more than 30 000 years old but even more fascinating is the first known man-made sculpture. It was found in North Africa and was created more than 400 000 years ago. Our ancestors clearly displayed artistic behaviour even if their drawings are not as intricate as the ones that are made now. But what exactly makes art, art? 

It is clearly more than just defining beauty. If it were, all we would have would be symmetrical faces and renderings of the African savanna. Art is not only about harmonious beauty, it can also be tragic and intricate and inflict emotions on the beholder. Consider some of the famous paintings, they are not all created to exhibit beauty. Edvard Munch’s The Scream, for example, is somewhat scary but it evokes something in us that is deeper. Art can be overwhelming for many reasons and therefore it is hard to define. 

In fact. art is a subject that is truly indefinable. It does not conform to any rules and is whatever the artist believes it is. It is in the artist’s belief and description that gains followers when they see something that sparks an indescribable feeling within them. It is why when Marcel Duchamp declared a porcelain urinal a piece of art in 1917, it changed the concept of art forever. It is what allowed Piero Manzoni to can his own faeces in 2007 and present it as a work of art. 

There is no definition of art. It is whatever we believe it to be. Delving deeper into the brain and its recognition of art is also quite interesting. Unlike like language and logic which are associated with specific regions of the brain, art has no set location in the brain. It seems that many neural networks work together to both create and process art. This is understandable once you consider that ar involves our senses, emotions and thinking. 

Key lesson four: External influences on our perception of beauty

Have you ever wondered why our perception of beauty has changed over the years? It may seem like it has not but if you consider the paintings of centuries ago, woman, in particular, look very different to the models we have in magazines now. The women in the paintings of old are much curvier and were considered to be the epitome of beauty. So, what changed?

As much as our brain already has a preconceived notion of what is beautiful, the society we live in also has an influence. Scientists have found a link between the body styles men consider beautiful and the food supply in the community that they live in. Basically, the amount of food that a country has, the fatter the people are who live in it. In these countries of abundance, thinner women are more attractive. In contrast, in countries where food is scarce, larger women are more desirable. The difference here is also rooted in our survival. Women need fat reserves in order to have a healthy pregnancy and to nurture their child when it is born especially when food is scarce. This is why women in older paintings were larger and more desirable. 

Culture and civilization have, over the years, overly exaggerated the features which we find beautiful. It is done to enhance the feelings we experience when we are visually stimulated by attractive features. Just take comic books as an example. Have you ever considered why male superheroes have such defined masculine features such as broad shoulders and square chins and females tend to have tiny waists and large hips and breasts? Even animated manga characters use big eyes that are considered to be a cute, baby-like feature that we find appealing. We also have a culture that is obsessed with staying young. This has introduced the idea that younger-looking people are more attractive than people who look older. The results of these cultural influences can be seen in the models present in magazines and fashion shows today. If their facial dimensions were actually measured, it would be easy to see that they closely resemble those found in children. 

The key takeaway from The Aesthetic Brain is:

As much it is hard to believe, the way the human brain perceives beauty is the same for everyone. Symmetry, averageness and sexual dimorphism all play a part in attractiveness and it is all linked to the evolutionary benefits these factors indicate. The same factors for beauty may also be linked to art. What is defined as art is best described as the senses and emotions they evoke which might also have some evolutionary roots. Humans feel free to express themselves when they are in a safe setting and what is considered beautiful art is a combination of our brains preconceived notions of beauty and the external influences of the society we live in.

How can I implement the lessons learned in The Aesthetic Brain:

Most people shy away from art stating that they cannot draw or are not artistic. However, art can literally take on many shapes and forms. It is a form of expression and the sooner you realise this, the easier it will become to create something beautiful. Put yourself in an environment where you feel at ease and then let go of your hesitations.

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