On Psychology and Physiology of Beauty
Beauty matters. From Plato to modern times, scholars tried to answer this question: “How our mind determines what is beautiful?”
There is no doubt that in this world, attractive people enjoy certain privileges, and not merely in the area of dating and relationships; frequently they are chosen for promotions over their less-attractive peers, favoured by teachers, deemed more trustworthy, and attractive infants are even said to be favoured by their mothers.
While what is deemed attractive is somewhat subjective, and differs somewhat in different regions of the world (though there is much more agreement on what makes an attractive person, it turns out, than disagreement), it usually comes down to a combination of factors, including the way you dress, carry yourself, your apparent social status, size, shape, and race. However, there is invariably one feature which stands out above all the rest in this process of determination—the face. Our brains are fine-tuned to immediately be able to tell a beautiful face from one only a mother could love, and this seems to be an ability we are simply born with (infants as young as six months old prefer to look at the same attractive faces adults do).
This reaction is so inherent and immediate it is said to take place before you are even consciously aware you have seen a face; a recent study which showed people faces for only 13 milliseconds found that the participants were able to assess the faces’ attractiveness with the same accuracy as the experimenters themselves, who looked at the faces far longer. The people engaged in the study were not consciously aware of any deduction process they had gone through, feeling like they were merely guessing at the attractiveness of each fleeting face.
This hard-wired knowledge is not mere superficial preference, however; the features our minds have learned to recognize as “beautiful” are preferred by the brain because of what they indicate about a person’s physiology and even character.
So, without further ado, what makes us beautiful?
The Role of Hormones and Gender
“Sex typical” features are one of the core elements of beauty for both men and women. Men with fairly prominent cheekbones and eyebrow ridges and a relatively long lower face have been found to be preferred by women, according to various studies. Men, on the other hand, almost always prefer women with large eyes, a small nose, a high forehead, smooth skin, full cheekbones, and a youthful or even childlike appearance.
Both of these feature “sets” are the result of hormones—testosterone in men, and estrogen in women—the higher the levels of each of these hormones in men and women, the more closely they resemble the “ideal”, meaning that our brains are wired to relate the concept of beauty to people with a high hormone count (for their gender). Why?
One might immediately guess “fertility”, but that’s not actually the whole of the reason. In reality, these high hormone counts are desirable because they are indicative of a person’s health—not that more hormones actually make a person healthier, but, oddly, because they actually suppress one’s immune system during puberty. Our brains seem to figure that if a person made it safely into adulthood despite having to withstand the immune system handicap of high hormone levels in their teen years, they must have an iron constitution and be resistant to disease, and hence make a very desirable mate.
Men, true to stereotype, have been found to place a higher emphasis on attractiveness alone when choosing a mate, whereas women will also factor in perceptions of power and status. Women’s perceptions of attractiveness have also been shown to fluctuate according to how attractive they perceive themselves, and even where they happen to be in their monthly cycle, with their preference for more masculine and symmetrical-looking men peaking around the time of ovulation—a preference which may wane dramatically at other times of the month.
This difference in preference is thought to be rooted in deep in our past; humans were, prior to modern times, not typically sexually monogamous, only socially monogamous. Women were thus given the ability to discern the difference between a male who is, in essence, a healthy sperm donor while she is fertile, and a male who (being less aggressive and typically “masculine”) makes a more attractive, nurturing, and level-headed life-partner.
The Role of Symmetry
No two faces are alike, and no two halves of any face are alike, either. Asymmetry is natural to us, and almost all of us have one eye slightly larger than the other, one cheekbone that is slightly different to the other, a jaw that is wider on one side than the other, etc.
While some forms of asymmetry, called “directional asymmetries” (e.g, one side of the face being just slightly larger than the other), are quite common the world over, other “fluctuating” forms of asymmetry are not. The latter category of asymmetries is influenced by environmental factors that affect a baby’s development, such as parasites, illness, etc. These misfortunes can become quite literally written on our faces, and as such, a more symmetrical face is seem by our brains as the face of someone who withstood environmental challenges with very little damage done—once again, a hallmark of an iron constitution, something we want to pass on to our offspring.
Many studies have by now shown that men and women alike rate symmetrical faces higher in terms of attractiveness, power, and health, and say they would be more desirable as mates, despite the symmetry being too subtle (vs. more asymmetrical faces) to be distinguished consciously with the naked eye. Our minds are simply wired, without our conscious say in the matter, to pick up on symmetry, as it’s a marker of tough genes.
The good news is, looking “average” is actually a bonus in this regard, as the most symmetrical faces are generally the most average ones, faces that are generic composites of common features, rather than the incredibly unique and eccentric face of, say, a typical catwalk model. As it turns out, our minds instinctually want to stray away from harmful genetic mutations, so what is attractive to most people is much more “same old” than one might expect.
Genetically speaking, this symmetry is also thought to be indicative of possessing the right balance of dominant and recessive alleles (a condition known as heterozygosity), which is thought to confer a greater resistance to pathogens, adding yet another layer to the “beauty as a signifier of disease resistance” theory.
Plus, it’s thought that our minds are generally quite simply lazy—the closer something adheres to a standard “prototype” of what we expect, the less our brain has to process information about it, which explains why humans also tend to prefer average-looking pets and commodities.
The Role of the Amygdala
Why are men prone to making poor decisions, such as rushing off to war or getting into physical fights, when exposed to extreme female beauty? This phenomenon is not merely the stuff of myth and legend, according to McMaster University researchers, who found that looking at photographs of attractive women actually disrupted men’s long-term thinking skills, making them more prone to rash short-term decisions (an effect which is not mirrored at all in women when they view attractive men).
The male amygdala is to blame for this judgment-impairing effect; when exposed to beautiful faces, the activity of the amygdala (along with several other areas of the brain involved in processing rewards, such as the nucleus accumbens, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex) lights up, creating the same effect one sees in an addict facing temptation, a person who will bend their morals (or even break the law) for money, or in a dieter who just can’t resist that delicious last piece of cake. In essence, the promise of short-term reward grows so strong that long-term goals are superseded in importance.
Men face a heavier load in terms of judgement-impairment when confronted with beautiful faces than women do because their orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that evaluates the reward potential of current behaviours, is also strongly activated, provoking a much higher “enticement factor” which men then have to surmount.
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dp_danny/15195310496