Tuesday, November 24

The Science and Perception of Beauty

Part of my life is always searching for the next intellectual experience that will add to the information in my head (and makes me more interesting at dinner parties.) Earlier this month I went to The Royal Institution of Britain. What is this you ask? The name is a bit ubiquitous so I shall elaborate. The building houses a library, exhibits, scientific apparatus, and the scientists who have developed and used the apparati over the ages. The Institution can brag that they have 14 Nobel Prizes winners and many famous inventions that, overtime, have become every day objects. For example the vacuum and hair dryer. Scientists such as Humphrey Davy, James Dewar and Ada Lovelace are examples. As well, the eGuide that you use during the tour of the museum is so fun, full of jokes, bad humour and hilarious visuals.

More importantly they have LECTURES! The one I attended is the title of this post: The Science and Perception of Beauty. I must admit that I went expecting more of a sociological and psychological perspective of beauty. Silly me. These are scientists and they use the scientific method to study the world. Which looks like this:

Pose a Question
Develop a Hypothesis
Get $$$$$$
Identify the Variables
Hire Underlings
Underlings Get Subjects
Hypothesis Tested on Subjects
Results Analyzed
Discuss and Write
Be Critiqued by Peers
Travel to Conferences World-wide
Impress Audiences of Lay-People

That is when I go to the presentation of said Hypothesis answering scientists. What people think is beautiful has been studied before. Scientists have agreed upon the following:

1. Symmetry - when facial features are the same shape, place on the face, same size etc, we unconsciously see this as an indicator of good genes. Biologically we want to reproduce with good gene people.

2. Averageness - we want someone whose face is average, in contours and shape, because it indicates that this person has a strong genetic lineage that survives, and we want access to this lineage for our progenitors.

3. Sex Typical Characteristics - he he, basically men want feminine features in a woman, but women are more complicated. We want masculine features (ie. square jaw) in a lover, but more feminine features (ie. soft eyes) for the father of our children.

4. Skin - this is a new concept to study. That is where Dr. Bernhard Fink and Dr. Paul Matts come into play, men who are Evolutionary Psychologists.

OK, to avoid giving you the 1.5 hour lecture I shall be summarize. These men morphed and altered the faces of men and women, then used other men and women as guinea pigs in pinpointing what people thought was beautiful. They uncovered the following at the end of their research:

1. People prefer skin that reflects more light (looks more luminous).
2. People prefer faces that have an even skin tone: few spots, little to no color variation, and smoothness.

This of course reflects the ideas we have about youth being beautiful above all. Once women and men age, faces discolour, age spots appear and wrinkles also show up.

The most interesting part about their findings extends to knowing another fact. The only thing that causes spots, wrinkles and many colours is UVA light. THE SUN! The sun is reputed, by the American Academy of Dermatology, to cause 80% of skin ageing. Eventually all three elements will all appear and women and men will become less 'beautiful' to each other as we age. (Keep in mind, beauty in these experiments included a person in a crowded room who caught your eye and who caught your eye gaze the longest. As well as picking the most beautiful face between several faces. Small, narrow definition I know.)

Now, we extend what they have learned to a 10 billion Euro beauty product industry in the UK (half a billion Euro's of that being cosmetic enhancements and surgeries). You can keep buying Olay Regenerist and RoC's Retin-Ox Correxion creams if you want, but they only do the following:

Skin is more 'beautiful' if is reflects more light (luminous) and skin whose top layer (called Stratum Corneum, the top layer of the Epidermis, wiki that for fun), is smoother in younger skin and becomes spiky with valleys and bumps as we age. Moisturizers fill in the valleys which helps your skin reflect more light for a portion of time. Then skin becomes dry again, reflects less light and the skin looks less beautiful. In other words, expensive skin products do NOTHING! They cannot penetrate through 5 layers of Epidermis plus another 2 layers where the skin cells are created, to have any effect. Men, you are starting to fall into the trap and the amount of money you are spending on cosmetic products has increased. Don't do it! Stop wasting your money, stop being afraid of age and start living your life while enjoying your spots, wrinkles and colour variations.

In the end, these scientists studied the women and men who received the most attention and were identified as facially 'beautiful'. We many generally see certain aspects of beauty similarly but thanks goodness we add to this different psychological and sociological views of beauty. In another post I am going to share with you the psychological development of what I perceive as beautiful. Until then I want you to think about beauty simply being a reflection of light. It does not seem so important when said so simply. I leave you a highlight of the presentation.

During the question and answer portion, an audience member in his 70's said that the researchers were missing a piece. That as he enters a room he looks around, 'and even in my 50's I didn't want someone who looked like a China doll. I wanted a women who looks like a woman! A woman with skin that has been lived in." Love him!


Article on Anti-Ageing Creams

Talk on Institution Page


  1. i was afraid this would be high falutin'. but it wasn't ... it was the best of tonia! well thought out, interesting, and peppered with wittiness of the best kind.

    pardon me while i go fill in the valleys and reflect more light ... while i still can.

  2. Cath, you makethe me blush! Thanks...off to read some of your posts.