The best books on the science of art and aesthetics

Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by beauty and art. As a child growing up in India, I sketched frequently. Later, I became obsessed with photography. In 1999, I moved from my first academic job to join the newly forming Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. The move was an opportunity to rethink my research program. In addition to studying spatial cognition, attention, and language, I decided to investigate the biological basis of aesthetic experiences. At the time there was virtually no scholarship in the neuroscience of aesthetics. It has been an exciting journey to watch this field grow. And, it has been exhilarating to start the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, the first research center of its kind in the US.


I wrote...

The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

By Anjan Chatterjee,

Book cover of The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

What is my book about?

The Aesthetic Brain takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey through the world of beauty, pleasure, and art. Chatterjee uses neuroscience to probe how an aesthetic sense is etched in our minds and evolutionary psychology to explain why aesthetic concerns are central to our lives. He addresses fundamental questions: What is beauty? Is beauty universal? How is beauty related to pleasure? What is art? Should art be beautiful? Do we have an instinct for art?

Chatterjee starts by probing the reasons that we find people, places, and even numbers beautiful. At the root of beauty, he finds, is pleasure. He then examines our pleasures by dissecting why we like and why we want food, sex, and money and how these rewards relate to aesthetic encounters. His ruminations on beauty and pleasure prepare him and the reader to face art. 

The Books I Picked & Why

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How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration

By Ellen Winner,

Book cover of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration

Why this book?

If you read one book on the psychology of art, make it this one. Winner gives us a book that celebrates the importance of art even as she remains grounded in experimental data and avoids hyperbole. She asks deceptively simple questions. What is art? Why do we make art? Does art make us better people? The clarity of her logic and the elegance of her prose as she answers these and other incisive questions make this book a delight to read.


Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why

By Ellen Dissanayake,

Book cover of Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why

Why this book?

Ellen Dissanayake was a primary force in the modern era to bring evolution into the conversation of why we have and often revere art. For her, art promotes social cohesion in small groups and making objects special through ritual lies at the root of making art. If you want to learn about how evolution might have promoted the creation of art, this book is the place to start.


Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience

By G. Gabrielle Starr,

Book cover of Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience

Why this book?

This book is an excellent example of interdisciplinarity. Gabrielle Starr is a humanist—a literary scholar, by training—who probes neuroscience methods and how brain sciences can contribute to our understanding of aesthetics. She addresses literature, poetry, music, and visual art with ideas informed by experimental neuroaesthetics work.


Understanding the Beauty Appreciation Trait: Empirical Research on Seeking Beauty in All Things

By Rhett Diessner,

Book cover of Understanding the Beauty Appreciation Trait: Empirical Research on Seeking Beauty in All Things

Why this book?

Most scientific books on aesthetics focus on universal and generalizable principles. Rhett Diessner also does so in reviewing the psychological and neuroscience of the human experience of beauty. What sets this book apart from many others is that he also considers individual differences and how personality traits affect our aesthetic sensibilities. If you wonder why people vary in their appreciation of beauty, this is a book worth reading.


Brain, Beauty, and Art: Essays Bringing Neuroaesthetics Into Focus

By Anjan Chatterjee (editor), Eileen Cardilo (editor),

Book cover of Brain, Beauty, and Art: Essays Bringing Neuroaesthetics Into Focus

Why this book?

This collection of essays will bring you up-to-date with the neuroscience of aesthetics. Each essay is written by foundational researchers whose empirical work launched the field. The essays are anchored to an original, peer-reviewed paper from the short history of this new and burgeoning discipline. Together, these essays establish the territory and current boundaries of neuroaesthetics and identify its most promising future directions.


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