Scientists are still trying to figure out what makes things and people beautiful. Which, by the way, is very subjective as far as we know – after all, not everyone finds the same thing beautiful (thankfully, or all women would want a single man and vice versa).
In other words, it’s like asking if your view of “red” is the same as someone else’s – there’s no way to know for sure.
Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote: “We must conclude that beauty is, for the most part, some quality in bodies, mechanically acting upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses.”
Burke wrote this in 1756, and it is still quoted today. Still, there’s a lot to explore in neuroscience and psychology when it comes to what people find beautiful, the extent to which people see beauty in itself, and what role beauty plays in society.
beauty and brain
Regardless of culture, there seem to be certain patterns of brain activity associated with seeing something you find beautiful.
Semir Zeki, professor of neuroaesthetics at University College London, studies the neural basis for art appreciation. He found that the one factor common to all the things people find beautiful in art and music is activity in the orbitomedial frontal cortex, which takes care of the brain’s sense of reward and pleasure center.
There are cultural trends in art and music that people find beautiful – for example, there is a Japanese preference for asymmetry, compared to a Western ideal of symmetry. This doesn’t apply to faces, however, as it seems that people universally prefer symmetrical faces.
It is also not well understood why people adapt to certain objects of beauty after many exposures but others do not. For example, you might get sick of a pop song after listening to it a lot, but listen to an opera dozens of times over the years, and still feel emotion. Or maybe there’s a painting you’ve always admired, and another that has lost its splendor.
Many people find something beautiful that they haven’t gotten close enough to examine all the little flaws. The perception of beauty can weaken when we begin to recognize these flaws.
beauty on the face
Brain imaging has examined *facial beauty, too. A recent study found that self-assessment of your own *facialattractiveness may be related to self-esteem, based on common patterns of brain activity.
When it comes to *facialattractiveness, there is reason to believe that specific features and biologically based factors guide our assessment of beauty.
Faces that are more symmetrical and average in appearance tend to be rated as more *attractive in scientific studies. Symmetry, in particular, has been studied extensively throughout the world.
In fact, even *babies respond more positively to symmetrical faces. But *babies seem to respond more to faces consideredattractive than purely symmetrical, suggesting that there is something more to this pattern.
There are theories that specific proportions are the most naturally beautiful, with length and width proportions being important.
And with the help of computers, it became apparent that putting together a large number of faces typically produces a final product that is highlyattractive. The reasoning is that this mixture approaches the “prototype” face that can underlineattraction.
So it could be that *babies are drawn to faces that are more like the most basic concept of a face – that is, the average.
Putting it all together, a 2007 study suggests that symmetry increases the *attractiveness of “average” faces.
Why does it matter? The theory is that symmetrical traits can be markers of genetic quality.
Human ancestors evolved to find mates that pass on good genes to offspring, so they naturally ward off traits that would be detrimental to survival or indicators of poor health.
In fact, a 2011 study found that people with asymmetrical faces tend to come from a more difficult childhood. It appears that childhood adversity is associated with *facial features that are not perfectly aligned, although there is no proof of this.
As *sexualrelations are more “expensive” for female primates – they carry the children – women are the demanding ones.
And the type of man women areattracted to can vary depending on the phases of the ovulation cycle. Studies have shown that during periods of high fertility, women are moreattracted to more dominant-looking men.
Unconsciously, they may perceive beauty according to evolutionary forces, as dominance can indicate genetic aptitude. In fact, women also buy *sexierclothes when they are most fertile.
A recent study revealed that women are moreattracted to men with stronger immune systems, which are associated with higher levels of testosterone. But this is more complicated in men with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, suggesting that women may find stressed people lessattractive.
Beauty also plays an important role in friendship. Research has shown that women tend to have friends of similarattractiveness. In terms of both our own perceptions of beauty and independent judges, a woman’sattractiveness correlates well with her friends’ *attractiveness. And, if you are a woman who is the leastattractive of a group, you are also more likely to see your mostattractive friend as a mating rival.
However, universally, people tend to have friends who share genetic links.
beauty in itself
Sometimes people link their self-esteem to their appearance, tying beauty to their perception of themselves. This comparison can have positive or negative consequences, both emotional and psychological.
There is no scientific evidence to suggest that ideas about the importance of your own beauty form in childhood.
Parents give a certain level of praise to their children’s appearance, versus the amount of effort they put into tasks and activities they are good at. Girls in children’s *beauty contests, for example, receive feedback that their appearance is highly valued.
And when it comes to evaluating beauty, many people are their own worst critics. Sometimes there is a specific part of the body that becomes a focus of self-loathing. So it may be socially unacceptable to say things to others that we would say to ourselves.
Self-perception can lead to disorders such as hating your body and having too many surgeries, or loving your *body and becoming too *narcissistic, etc.
beauty as power
Studies have shown that more *attractive people also appear more competent and successful. There is probably a strong cultural dimension to this. Other research has also shown that physical *attractiveness can influence salary.
The legal system can also take beauty into account – a variety of studies have found effects that suggest *attractiveness helps when it comes to verdicts and sentences. *Attractive people seem less “likely” to commit *seriouscrimes.