‘Fools for beauty’

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Monday 12 Apr 2021

Recent researchers supervised by the University of Montreal demonstrated that humans’ automatic preference for beauty is driven by an inherent tendency rather than explicit cognitive process

It is undeniable that humans are inherently drawn to beauty.  So what if it is “skin-deep”? Do you realise that the body’s largest organ is the skin?

An accident of nature, a rare occurrence or genetically inherited, there is often no rhyme or reason for it. Science, too busy creating or curing diseases, has not approached the subject until very recently — and even then it has barely touched the surface.

The subject remains mostly unknown except for the fact that this natural tendency is encoded in the human mind intrinsically. It is common and undeniable in daily life. We already know that.

Recent researchers supervised by the University of Montreal demonstrated that humans’ automatic preference for beauty is driven by an inherent tendency rather than explicit cognitive process. Facial beauty automatically captures individuals.

Indeed, why else would 97% of women express dissatisfaction with their bodies, 60% with their faces and rush for help even if it means a surgeon’s knife.  Similar figures apply to males.

Both men and women are highly concerned with good looks in a potential partner.

The human face has been a source of great interest to psychologists and other scientists in recent years. Still in the process of solving this enigma, their studies are ongoing and the results simply explain scientifically, what is already common knowledge.

 We all love beauty. Why?

Audio-visual beauty refers to the senses that is directly based on the pathway which is familiar in individual perceptual experience, that sensory element of aesthetic rules. 

Neurological centers located deep within our brain, referred to as the “brain reward system” was found to be involved in how we evaluate the attractiveness of a face. Now, maybe we are getting somewhere.

The human curiosity about faces and what the features tell us about a person are hardwired in how we perceive reality.

The brain reward system is instrumental in providing the bio-chemistry that allows us to feel pleasure, as when we experience an amazingly delicious Ramadan meal, or watch the Golden Parade of Egyptian Mummies travelling to their final resting place in the city of Fustat.

This same system is engaged when we lay eyes on a beautiful face.

So our brain is rewarded when we gaze at beauty!

 “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”, still stands.  It is a testament to our belief that attractiveness is ephemeral. Exactly what makes a beautiful face, remains poorly defined. Cultures vary dramatically in what they perceive to be attractive.

Yet, research into how people evaluate faces has shown a surprisingly universal criterion for what constitutes a beautiful face. Research participants of all nationalities continually pressed a button to hold longer certain images on the viewing screen, and also looked into the eyes for the majority of the time.

Philosopher David Hume believes that: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them and each mind contemplates a different beauty.”

According to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher: “When you see an attractive person the ventral of the brain becomes active and will pump out dopamine” — a stimulant to the brain.  The brain lights up in response to the stimuli, and “the left centre tegmental area (VTA) is responsible for pleasurable reactions to beauty”. 

There we have it. Beautiful faces are not only easy on the yes but also on the brain. It is an effortless, pleasurable experience, driven by sheer perceptual activity.

There is beauty in virtue, kindness, goodness, morality etc. but they demand cognitive processes, while visual beauty refers to the senses, without explicit cognitive efforts. We are lazy creatures and prefer the simpler, immediate, effortless road to pleasure.

As scientists figure it out, we all have been affected by beauty since the beginning of time. Even in the animal kingdom, they seek the finer plumes, colours, feathers etc.

“It is a gift of God,” said Aristotle, while Oscar Wilde rates it as “higher than genius, because it stands no explanation.”

Wherever it may be, it is hard to avoid.  It is immediate, striking, pleasing and arousing. It certainly did not escape the bard’s attention: “Beauty itself doth of itself persuade/ The eyes of man without an orator.”

It sounds more or less what scientists are trying to prove 600 years later.

Cinema has certainly displayed images of beauty from around the world for a century and remain unforgettable —Hedy Lamar. Ava Gardner, Kim Novak, Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman, not to mention Britain’s roses, Vivien Leigh, Jean Simmons, Catherine Zeta-Jones and the incomparable Elizabeth Taylor.

Men too more than ever provide beauty.  They have made women swoon over their dashing looks. Unforgettable seducers includes Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Sean Connery and for the younger crowd Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper and the perennial Clint Eastwood.

 It must be true that women prefer older men. George Clooney, displaying his grey hair has been crowned the new king.

Our increasing pre-occupation with Beauty has driven us to extreme measures in order to achieve, preserve and claim it. Yes it has made fools of us as the song goes, but at what price?

What the gods give, they also take away.  It is imperative to cultivate inner beauty that time can never touch. “Good nature is more agreeable than beauty and more amiable”.

Would you rather be admired or loved?

Outer beauty is elusive, capricious and changeable. Better stick to inner beauty — or why not both.

“Beauty is a terrible and awful thing. It is terrible because it has not been fathomed.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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