A summer studying the aesthetic brain

For third-year Olivia Kim, a PURM research experience with Penn neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee allowed her to combine her love of neuroscience and art in a working lab.

Olivia Kim.
Olivia Kim, a third-year student in the School of Arts & Sciences, spent ten weeks in the lab of Anjan Chatterjee, cataloging artwork for a database used in the study of neuroaesthetics. (Image: Courtesy of Olivia Kim)

For Olivia Kim, a third-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences from Dallas, Texas, her familiarity with the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics began long before this summer. “I actually wrote about the lab in my application essay to Penn. It was just kind of perfect for me. I was always interested in neuroscience and very interested in why people enjoy art, why people are drawn to it, and also why some people aren’t.”

This was the driving curiosity that led to Kim’s choice of summer research experience in the lab of Anjan Chatterjee, a professor in the Department of Neurology and founding director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the Perelman School of Medicine. The program, through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM), provides a $5,000 award and is supported by the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.

For the 10-week period, Kim engaged in what Chatterjee describes as “an apprenticeship model,” immersed in ongoing projects alongside Chatterjee and four postdocs. The lab conducts ongoing studies in human beauty, the built environment, and the role of art in human flourishing through coding and running experiments and statistical analysis.

Kim, who is double majoring in cognitive neuroscience and visual studies, says this seemed like an ideal way to spend the summer. “I’ve always been interested in both science and art. Throughout high school I explored both things in my classes, but they never really intersected,” Kim says. “It wasn’t until I came to Penn that I realized I could study them together because there is a lot of overlap.”

“Often people who have an interest in art and science end up the lab,” says Chatterjee. “I think sometimes people who have a science background don’t appreciate the complexities that is involved in both the making and the appreciation of art. And sometimes people who come from the humanities or the arts don’t appreciate that this is ultimately an experimental lab. They think the ideas are cool, but the actual work can be rigorous and sometimes boring; you have to go through the paces.”

Kim, who is a photographer, proved up for the challenge, the rigors, and the scientific process. For 10 weeks, Kim was assigned to two ongoing projects; the first, a study about engagement with artworks, and the impact art has on the viewer. Within that project her work focused on creating a database of more diverse artworks.

“Most of the experiments that have been done thus far in aesthetics have used European and American artwork,” says Kim. “One of my goals for the summer was to work alongside the postdocs in the lab to create a more diverse database of images that can be used for study.”

Before Kim’s summer in the lab, the team made selections from six different areas and fields: Latin America, Asia, and Africa, along with mural arts, modern art, and theological art. The selection of art was made with input from experts in art in those areas. This approach built on an earlier study that identified potential impacts of art using experts from neuroscience, art history, psychology, philosophy, and theology, which helped guide what the lab calls “impact dimensions.” Following a crowdsourcing study, the team came up with 11 categories of impacts that people might have when they encounter works of art.

Kim explains: “This is how a viewer is impacted by a piece of artwork, on a scale of one to five. For example, ‘Does this image make you feel angry? Does it make you feel compassionate? Is it calming?’ We have around 300 images to conduct surveys with so we can have a better idea of how viewers are impacted by these pieces. And then we can create this database to use in the future.”

Anjan Chatterjee
Anjan Chatterjee, professor in the Department of Neurology and founding director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the Perelman School of Medicine. (Image: Courtesy of Anjan Chatterjee)

Chatterjee adds, “One of the concerns about empirical aesthetics in general is that our focus, as a field, has been primarily on European and North American art. That creates artificial limits on our understanding of how people react to art. For those reasons, we want to expand the kind of database of what stimuli scientists use in experiments. Olivia’s work this summer immersed her in the foundational work that other projects down the road will build upon.”

Kim’s workweek was Monday through Friday in the lab, with Tuesdays being her favorite day. “Lab meetings were always my favorite part of the week because the entire lab would get together and share what they were working on. Everyone in the lab comes from such different academic backgrounds and experiences; we have a resident artist, a virtual reality specialist, a medical student, postdocs, and undergrads like me. Each project here in the lab is collaborative, and having people with different backgrounds allows each project to be as comprehensive and well-rounded as possible.

“I have learned something from every single person in this lab, and I am so grateful that I’ve been given the chance to learn from such accomplished people and such creative thinkers,” she adds. “I think the wide range of backgrounds is something special and unique to this lab, given its interdisciplinary nature. However, I think any lab, and any group in general, can really benefit from bringing people from different backgrounds to their team.”

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Kim worked with the lab’s VR specialist for her second project, a biophilic VR experiment, which involves biophilic design, an emerging architectural principle.

“Biophilic design incorporates elements of nature into architecture and design; it has been hypotheized to increase productivity and boosts mood. Before I interned at the lab, the members tested it in real life using a biophilic testing room with participants who completed psychological tasks,” Kim explains. “We want to see if the effects that we saw in real life translate into virtual reality.”

“We created VR-immersive replicas of those physical rooms, and that is what we are testing right now,” says Chatterjee. “For our architectural work, if the VR experiences are commensurate with the real world, then we gain a certain amount of experimental control that we can manipulate design variables more easily than in a real environment. It’s a way to accelerate the work.”

The entrance to the biophilic room, an office with a living wall, a topographic-designed rug, a lamp and bamboo on the ceiling.
Biophilia is the idea that humans have an innate connection to and desire to be in nature. That notion inspired this testing room redesign (above) and subsequent pilot study conducted by a team from Penn’s Center for Neuroaesthetics. (Image: Eric Sucar)

“Olivia was bright, engaged, and curious,” Chatterjee says. “She learned that we work together in teams, and that science requires focus on details.”

“The biggest challenge for me this summer was actually the thing that drew me into the lab in the first place,” Kim says. “The most challenging, yet intriguing, part for me was taking artwork, which is something I always viewed as indefinable, and studying it in a quantifiable way. Entering the lab, I was intimidated by that fact we were taking something so broad and foundational and studying it in a lab setting. As the summer went on, however, I found it fascinating how everyone in the lab approached this seemingly impossible task.”

An important variable the lab considers is the influence of the viewer’s own background, their art education, and personality variables, and how that impacts the kind of experience the viewer has engaging with art.

“The project encouraged me to think deeper about how I comprehend artwork and how I am impacted by what I see. It also made me think more about biases and knowledge that I bring when I view artwork, and how that may affect how I analyze it,” Kim says. “I find it fascinating that people can have an entirely different response to the same artwork. This idea is what drew me to art as a child, and is still what draws me in today.”