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Back to Neurons
One thing you may not have noticed is that most of what I said above has nothing to do with neurons, and is simply a description of what I find beautiful in women. Why bring neurons into it at all, then? The way I see it, it's a matter of emphasis, like the difference between memes and ideas. What I'm trying to emphasize here is that recognizing beauty is not a conscious activity, it's just something the mind automatically does.
Now you can see how this essay fits together. If I'd just made the abstract statement that there's a set of neurons that recognizes beauty, that wouldn't have been especially convincing, or even meaningful. But, once you know what I find beautiful, you can see that the idea is entirely plausible. The face? I already exaplained in Vision how the visual system is particularly sensitive to faces. Skin? That's easy to recognize—the most beautiful skin is basically just an area that's all a nice color. Good shape? There are neurons that detect straight edges, why not then neurons that detect nice curves?
Compare that to the statement that there's a set of neurons that recognizes, say, trustworthiness. That's probably true, but those neurons are up in the fluid part of the brain, tapping into all kinds of knowledge and experience. You don't have to know anything to recognize beauty.
However, I don't mean to say that what I find beautiful has nothing to do with experience (i.e., in terms of nature versus nurture, is all nature). For example, I think it's fairly common knowledge that men are attracted to women who look like their mothers. I suppose that could, in theory, be nature, but I can't believe it … it sounds too much like that thing in high-school biology where a chick (hehe) imprints on you and thinks you're its mother.
If the part of the visual system that recognizes beauty is influenced by the environment, can I still say that it's part of the mind, i.e., the low-level hardware of the brain? Sure I can! The situation is no different than with language. The language I speak is influenced by the environment, too, but that doesn't change the fact that there's a part of the brain that's adapted to processing language. (Speaking of learning languages, see the start of Fossilization.)
By the way, it wouldn't surprise me if that “part” of the visual system is actually two unrelated parts, one that recognizes faces and one that recognizes good shape. The first would be active from the beginning, but the second would only become active later on.
The neuron model even has a few minor implications.
For one thing, it implies that ugliness and beauty aren't different properties, but rather two ends of the same scale. That's pretty obvious, I know, but the argument is interesting, at least to me. Suppose I'm looking at a woman who has a small scar on otherwise smooth skin. Why do I see that as less beautiful? Is it because only 99% of the neurons that detect smooth skin are firing? I don't think so—the difference would hardly be noticeable. I think it's because some neurons that detect non-smooth skin are firing. In other words, I think I'm recognizing the presence of ugliness, not the absence of beauty. In yet other words, we can think of beauty as a weighted sum over things that are actively present, but to do so, we have to let some of the weights be negative. That's why I claim ugliness and beauty are two ends of the same scale.
Another thing the neuron model implies is that mistakes can be made—the same kind of mistakes that optical illusions exploit. As an example, here's a simple little geometrical figure I made, a circle cut in half and opened 90 degrees.
Men, I think, will find this pleasant to look at. The shape may not be ideal, but it's certainly close. I'm sure women can recognize it, but that's not the point; the reason it's pleasant to look at is not that men recognize it, but that their neurons do.
As another example, consider the moon. It's nice and round, and even has a nice rosy color when it's near the horizon. (It's probably no accident that mooning has the name it does.)
That is everything I have to say about what it's like to be a male. Whether or not you agree with the details, I think it's safe to say that men live in a world of beauty … a pleasant and happy world.
@ August (2003)