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> Liking What You See
  What Is Best?

Liking What You See

I just finished reading a collection of stories by Ted Chiang. Many of them were very good, although strangely uncompelling, as if the author were intentionally not pushing buttons. Or, maybe that's just how things tend to turn out when you write the kind of science fiction that's about ideas?

The last story, Liking What You See: A Documentary, was a perfect example of that. It wasn't a page-turner, but it was full of ideas; in fact, it was full of ideas about beauty that were remarkably close to my own. And the proof is, here I am, remarking on them! So, if you like, compare the following to What Is It Like to Be a Male?, particularly to the subessay Aspects of Beauty, and even more particularly to the comments I made about skin. The true power of skin is rarely appreciated, I think.

All animals have criteria for evaluating the reproductive potential of prospective mates, and they've evolved neural “circuitry” to recognize those criteria. Human social interaction is centered around our faces, so our circuitry is most finely attuned to how a person's reproductive potential is manifested in his or her face. You experience the operation of that circuitry as the feeling that a person is beautiful, or ugly, or somewhere in between. By blocking the neural pathways dedicated to evaluating those features, we induce calliagnosia.

Given how much fashions change, some people find it hard to imagine that there are absolute markers of a beautiful face. But it turns out that when people of different cultures are asked to rank photos of faces for attractiveness, some very clear patterns emerge across the board. Even very young infants show the same preference for certain faces. This lets us identify certain traits that are common to everyone's idea of a beautiful face.

Probably the most obvious one is clear skin. It's the equivalent of a bright plumage in birds or a shiny coat of fur in other mammals. Good skin is the single best indicator of youth and health, and it's valued in every culture. Acne may not be serious, but it looks like more serious diseases, and that's why we find it disagreeable.

Another trait is symmetry; we may not be conscious of millimeter differences between someone's left and right sides, but measurements reveal that individuals rated as most attractive are also the most symmetrical. And while symmetry is what our genes always aim for, it's very difficult to achieve in developmental terms; any environmental stressor—like poor nutrition, disease, parasites—tends to result in asymmetry during growth. Symmetry implies resistance to such stressors.

You can probably also see the connection to One Thing Leads To Another.

Later, the story touches on another pet subject of mine, advertising. I don't have an essay about exactly that, but Reaction Against Button-Pushing is pretty close.

Think of cocaine. In its natural form, as coca leaves, it's appealing, but not to an extent that it usually becomes a problem. But refine it, purify it, and you get a compound that hits your pleasure receptors with an unnatural intensity. That's when it becomes addictive.

Beauty has undergone a similar process, thanks to advertisers. Evolution gave us a circuit that responds to good looks—call it the pleasure receptor for our visual cortex—and in our natural environment, it was useful to have. But take a person with one-in-a-million skin and bone structure, add professional makeup and retouching, and you're no longer looking at beauty in its natural form. You've got pharmaceutical-grade beauty, the cocaine of good looks.

From advertising, it's only a small step to attention and distraction.

Before, every time I used to walk past a magazine stand or see a commercial, I could feel my attention being drawn a little bit.


And I would automatically resist, and go back to whatever I was doing before. But it was a distraction, and resisting those distractions took energy that I could have been using elsewhere.


  See Also

  De-Sentimentalization (2)

@ November (2004)