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Beauty and the Beholder

jwong's picture

Beauty is often viewed as a sore topic to debate over because it is an element with no fixed definition. In society, beautiful people are often viewed as more successful, more popular, and overall as happier people. Endeavors towards achieving the ideal of physical perfection are significant because they demonstrate not only a cultural but a biological influence on the brain geared towards survival. Among others, a major question becomes apparent; what makes beauty, or the perception of beauty, such a variable factor in the human brain? Scientists have attempted to define a more scientific reasoning for beauty perception based on various neurological experiments.

Because the perception of beauty varies so much in individual persons and by specific cultural standards, a generalized statement that might be made about it is that traditionally, facial beauty is indicative of a favorable mating partner. Charles Darwin, in his analysis of evolutionary history theorized that all organisms utilize particular traits to afford them specific advantage over competitors vying for the same environmental resources. While this has clear reasoning, Darwin also noted a lack of universal ideas of physical beauty because of extensive variance in appearance and preference across human groups (Feng).

In order to understand perception of beauty, it is best to start with observations of attractiveness. Two psychologists, Vicki Bruce and Andrew Young, developed the prominent “face model” for understanding human face perception. This is important because the first thing one notices when meeting a new person is their face, an important site for identification of others as well as for expression in social communication. Facial attractiveness signals good health and fitness and suggests an individual with the highest value as a potential mate and who would maximize reproductive success (Kiderra). In the brain, these variant aspects of facial expression including eye gaze, expression, and lip movements, are activated inside the superior temporal sulcus, one of the notable bumps or ridges located on the temporal lobe of the human brain (Senior). This part of the brain, along with the inferior occipital gyrus, is important to visualizing beauty because these areas of the brain are those that perceive the actual visual features of a person’s face. This segment of the brain participates in high levels of visual processing and deals with recognition of complex objects and details as well as facial feature identification (Dubuc). This “face model” is important because it indicates how the brain comprehends recognition of familiar faces and thereby patterns of attraction in physical beauty. Beginning with visual input from the eyes, these messages are relayed to the ventral tegmentum, where identification processes and beauty appraisal take place.

The value of identification in regards to beauty is significant because recognition of familiar facial structure and shape has also been noted as being integral to beauty. Such an attitude is useful in explaining cultural as well as historical differences in beauty “because beauty basically depends on what you’ve been exposed to and what is therefore easy on your mind” (Kiderra). In 2006, scientists at the University of California, San Diego developed a theory that evaluations of beauty are based on “mental processing ease,” meaning ease of recognition often equals greater association to beauty (Kiderra). Using data from past studies, Piotr Winkielman, director of the research project, declared that the significance of repeating a certain stimulus allows for the brain to quickly adapt and adjust to the new object. An arbitrary stimulus can therefore become attractive as it becomes more and more commonly seen, allowing the brain to recognize it quickly (Kiderra). The amygdala is an important section of the brain for this process; the amygdala traditionally decodes emotions and reacts to stimuli threatening the organism. However, the amygdala is also capable of processing specific meaning unrelated to the facial expression coming from the stimuli source (Dubuc). Researchers in Winkielman’s experiment noted that such a relationship between the amygdala section of the brain in relation to facial perception and emotion demonstrates the link between reaction from a stimulus and the effect of individual emotions in reaction to that stimulus. This connection seems a clear indicator that beauty perception stems from a level of recognition and ease of identification, ideas that can be seen as universal truths regarding division in true beauty (Senior).

Continuing along this line of thought, Italian scientists at the University of Parma hypothesized that when randomly presented with a series of sculptures altered in varying dimensions, subjects without a history in art criticism would make preferences based on personal cognitive sense of symmetry and ease of recognition. In essence, the scientists predicted that these subjects would use their human “intuition” to choose the sculpture demonstrating the best form and recognizable accuracy as being the most beautiful. The experiment found that images following the idea of the “golden ratios” strongly activated neurons in the insula section of the test subjects’ brains. In contrast, those images with altered dimensions did not elicit similar neural activity (Yong). Based on the Greek’s ideal ratio of the most aesthetically pleasing body and face proportions, the other samples of the sculptures were indicated as not being satisfactorily pleasing enough to educe that particular response. This conjecture suggests that despite race or cultural background, when faced with such options, people would naturally choose the subject with the ideal proportions as the most beautiful candidate (Kranz). This relates to a similar theory regarding the benefits of having a “rewards” center in the brain and how choosing a beautiful face over one that is less so incites a positive reward mechanism triggered in the amygdala. This rewards circuitry, contained in the medial forebrain bundle, relates to the concept of beauty through the “pleasure principle,” where recognition can be said to have evolved to demonstrate an “appetitive drive towards stimuli that were beneficial to our survival as a species” (Senior). Thus, the adaptive benefits of individuals with beautiful, and more pleasing faces explain why people with seemingly greater robustness are those seen as most attractive. Stimuli such as facial shape symmetry and its appeal to the human eye is thereby also seen as being significant to beauty; in some cultures, symmetry is associated with a greater immune system and more robust genes (Feng). In women, estrogen provides female faces with adipose deposits that signal fertility and readiness for reproductive effort; it thus provides females with a marker of youth and can be interpreted as an indication of beauty. Such stimuli activate more neural connections from the tegmentum to connections to other particular substrates in the brain. This face model is important because it works as a template to explain indications of attractiveness.

Perceptions of beauty are inevitably inconsistent; although scientists have utilized detailed methods to examine and attempt to determine reasoning behind the brain’s decisions regarding attractiveness, there invariably appear to be exceptions to what humans (and other organisms in general) to what is truly beautiful. Social norms as well as intuitive ideas about reproductive survival are important to such choices, and extend from the biological perspective to the socioeconomic reasons. Perceived beauty is important because it is inevitably a deciding factor of relationships and of reproductive success of a species. Vanity is thus ironic; we are taught that those who demonstrate the trait are actually undesirable companions; in actuality, companionship is chosen based on what is attractive and desirable. In a way, beauty itself is a means of self-preservation and a means of connection to fellow organisms.




Bruce, Vicki, and Andrew Young. "Understanding Face Recognition." NCBI, Pub Med. 1986. <>.


Dubuc, Bruno. "The Amygdala and its Allies." The Brain From Top to Bottom. Douglas Hospital Research Centre. <>


Feng, Charles. "Looking Good: the Psychology and Biology of Beauty." Journal of Young Investigators. Dec. 2002. Stanford University. <>.


Kiderra, Inga. "Beauty and the Brain." News Center. 26 Sept. 2006. UCSD. <>.


Kranz et al.: "Face Perception is Modulated by Sexual Preference." Publishing in Current Biology Vol. 16, Issue 1, pages 63-68, January 10, 2006. DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2005.10.070,


Senior, Carl. "Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder." 17 Apr. 2004. Laboratory of Brain and Cognition, National Institute of Mental Health. <>.


Yong, Ed. "Brain of the Beholder – the Neuroscience of Beauty in Sculpture." 21 Nov. 2007. <>




Paul Grobstein's picture

Beauty and brain variability

"what makes beauty, or the perception of beauty, such a variable factor in the human brain?"

That's a nice question. Maybe "Perceptions of beauty are inevitably inconsistent"? If so, what's the significance of the findings in studies of beauty mentioned here? And what would be broader implications be? For more along these lines see