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Beauty and Brains: Defining Attractiveness

In the late 1870s, scientist and eugenicist Sir Francis Galton developed an image of the prototypical “face of crime” by creating composite photos of men convicted of serious offenses.

Average Criminal

The middle face is the product of 14 criminals.

Though Galton failed to discover anything abnormal in his composite criminal faces, he did find that the resulting visages were shockingly handsome. Studies have since established that people find prototypical faces—those with average features—to be the most attractive.

– Maggie Wittlin, Seed Magazine

There’s no doubt for an instant- this guy you see strutting past you on the way to work is stunningly attractive. It would be absurd if we had to stop and consider a person’s appearance, taking into account of all their features (“Hmm let’s see now for a moment; He has a nice smile, a chiseled jaw, an even nose.. ok, he must be good-looking.”) before we came to that conclusion. We instinctively know what appeals to our aesthetic sense. The tricky question arises when we ask what defines physical attractiveness. Why do we like the faces of a glamor models more than the faces of Plain Janes and Average Joes?

Current research sheds light on the beauty mystery. It reveals to us that attractiveness is hardwired in the brain of the beholder.

Though we may be inclined to think that we hold unique preferences, psychological experiments in which participants rate appearance produce almost universal results. Statistically people of every race and age (even babies of 3 months) agree on the prettiest face in a given group. Interestingly, humans can also agree on the attractiveness of monkeys. Sidestepping the boundaries between societies, cultures, and even species, we have to ask;

What exactly is going on?

A part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus, located in the back of the temporal lobe, plays an important role in recogni zing familiar faces. When its neural pathway is damaged, a person is unable to identify friends and family, and cannot distinguish between pictures of regular and beautiful faces.

Scientist Dr. Marquaadt developed a mathematically proportionally map of facial symmetry to measure beauty.

Contemporary psychologists have taken Dalton’s technique to create average facial proportions leveling out asymmetry and irregularities in structure. The blending removes blemishes and other skin imperfections that gradually disappear causing the skin to appear extra smooth.

Both faces mixed creates more attractive features

An attractive face is easier for our brains to analyze and process in the fusiform. This smooth progression of cognition may in fact establish our fundamental idea of beautiful face. Studies demonstrate that when we perceive a face of an individual that we judge as attractive, we are subconsciously assessing his or her vitality and well-being. Facial symmetry,  skin smoothness works as one of the best observational indicators of good genes coding for healthy development and fertility.

composite of 5 girls above

However, most of us will refuse to believe that ascertaining physically attractiveness is wholly objective. Obviously we often disagree with each other on whether that guy or girl we saw on the way to work was totally hot or just ‘whatever’.

There are many other brain areas corresponding to factors such as characteristics of personality. Our unique brains decide what constitutes mate compatibility specifically for us- though many centers correspond to the physical traits we ourselves see as pleasing, many other brain regions respond to characteristics of personality. The final verdict is set when we take into account all attributes such as behavioral mannerisms, communication, temperament, interests, and convictions- and verify if they are personally desirable.

Though the standard for physical attractiveness might mainly be a corollary of primal brain functioning, real “Beauty” is still a concept that artists, authors, philosophers, and the Average Joe grapple to explain.

“Some people, no matter how old they get, never lose their beauty – they merely move it from their faces into their hearts.”
~ Martin Buxbaum

“My Brain Can Easily Process Your Face”

crime” by creating composite photos of men convicted of serious offenses.