A few weeks ago at one of our Tastemaker Conversations we at A.I.Labs sat with cognitive neuroscientist Anjar Chaterjee and Plastic Surgeon Dr. Sherrell J. Aston to talk about the whys and the hows of human beauty. Why is beauty so gripping? How does our brain decide what is beautiful and how does it respond to it? How has human beauty evolved (if at all) through the decades?
Watch the event´s highlights:
Universal Beauty Indicators
Although what we deem as beautiful is subjective for the individual, our choices are sculpted by three universal factors that contributed to the survival of the group during the Pleistocene. We are preprogrammed to be attracted to features that represent health and fertility:
1)Presence of Hormones
Pronounced gender characteristics are manifestations of a strong presence of hormones and, therefore, fertility: women with large eyes, full lips and small chin or men with large noses and pronounced jaws.
As anomalies usually arise from parasitic infections and stressors, symmetry becomes a good indicator of health.
Faces with features that represent a common average represent gene diversity and environmental adaptability.
Today, technology and medicine advancements means the filters for health and reproductive success are being relaxed, and under these relaxed conditions preference and trait combinations are free to drift and become more variable. The universal nature of beauty is changing.
Beauty Trends in the last 70 years:
Societal likes change overtime, in 10-year cycles. We have gone from the voluptuous women with big red lips in the 40s – Marilyn Monroe, Mansfield or Rita Hayworth- to the classical-beauty of the 50s – Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn … – ; the skinny, straight hair, no make-up girls of the 60s and 70s like Twiggy, the athletic bodies of the 80s and 90s like Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, when Jane Fonda brought out her exercise tapes. The 2000s brought diversification in terms of cultural groups: Kardashians, Jennifer Lopez, Veronica Webb, Amman. Looking back at the names back in the1940s – a lot of changes have happened! Our perception of beauty is always evolving.
The Ugly side of Beauty
There is a very powerful “beauty is good” stereotype: attractive people often receive certain advantages that might not be earned – they are hired more easily, they get less severely punished if they commit infractions, they get better grades as students (unless they’re standardized tests) and so on.
On the other side of this, there is a “disfigured is bad” stereotype that affects people with facial disfigurements by rendering them unjust and biased targets of discrimination. People with anomalies such as scars, birth defects etc are regarded as less intelligent, less trustworthy, less hard working, less competent by other people.
Being aware of this intrinsic attitude that we all have within us is a way of fighting against it. Neurologically speaking, our brains are very good at discriminating things, but aren’t terrific at discriminating values. So aesthetic values and moral values often get conflated.
Beyond the “beauty is good” association, there is also the “good is beautiful” association. People who smile are perceived as more attractive than people who frown, because looking at a smile activates the emotional and reward systems in our brains. When someone’s personality is not attractive, we start perceiving that person as less physically attractive due to the same phenomena.
When people alter a physical attribute that was concerning them, they become more confident. This new confidence makes them interact with other people with a different approach, they smile more, they are more secure. And this personality modification is what makes them more attractive, beyond the physical alteration. It’s a virtuous circle.
Anjan Chaterjee , Cognitive Neuroscientist
Anjan Chaterjee is an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist that bridges art, beauty and neuroscience in a fascinating way. He is professor of neurology at Penn Med and director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, among other initiatives. In his book, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art, Anjan investigates neural responses to beauty.
Dr. Sherrel is one of the world’s foremost surgeons and experts in aesthetic plastic surgery. He is also a Professor of Plastic Surgery at New York University and leads some of the world´s leading plastic surgery associations.