the science of beauty

Science journalist Douglas Main explores the scientific roots of beauty, from evolution to art, symmetry to fertility.

by Douglas Main
20 November 2014, 11:55am

We talk about beauty as if it were merely subjective: It is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder. And while you and I may disagree about who or what we find to be beautiful, it's futile to argue that beauty doesn't exist. It is probably fair to say of beauty, as Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, "I know it when I see it." But what exactly is beauty?

Philosophers stretching back to the ancient Greeks have tried to answer that question, but modern scientists have also cast their hats into the ring. What they have found might surprise you: they've discovered that standards of human attractiveness tend to be quite similar between different cultures, and there is mounting scientific evidence that experiencing beauty is not merely a luxury, but something deeply ingrained with what it means to be human and mentally healthy.

"Standards of beauty have strong biological underpinnings," says Carmen LeFevre, a psychology researcher at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom. "People think that [human] beauty is exclusively culturally-driven, but scientific evidence shows this not to be true," she says. "The cultural influence is there, but it's not as large as people tend to think."

In general, traits thought to be beautiful are those that serve as a "signal" of good genes, for passing on to potential offspring. And beautiful faces can be recognised early: studies have shown that infants spend more time looking at photographs of pretty faces, as opposed to homely ones (as rated by adults).

For example, men are generally most attracted to young women in their early twenties, because this is when they are most fertile, LeFevre says. Men also tend to prefer more feminine faces, as defined by larger eyes and fuller lips. These features come about as a result of higher levels of oestrogen, which also signal that a woman is fertile and a good potential mate, LeFevre adds. Several studies have shown that women are rated as more attractive, or beautiful, when they are ovulating, and thus capable of getting pregnant.

People generally rate symmetrical faces as more beautiful. Scientists think this is because it takes good genes to develop each side of the body in a similar way.

The case may be slightly more complicated for men, as some evidence shows the women tend to desire more masculine and feminine faces at different times of their menstrual cycle, LeFevre says. Masculine features - linked to higher levels of testosterone, a hormone found in larger quantities in men than women - include broader chins and thicker eyebrows, while more feminine faces tend to be rounder and have softer features.

Some evidence suggests there may be a trade-off between desiring somebody with a masculine face, who may be more likely to be aggressive, and somebody with a more feminine face, who may be more likely to be a better father, LeFevre says. But these are generalisations that (obviously) don't always hold true, she adds.

For both genders, symmetry also plays an important role. People generally rate symmetrical faces as more beautiful, LeFevre says. Scientists think this is because it takes good genes to develop each side of the body in a similar way. A healthy diet of fruits and vegetables also lends a slight yellow hue to facial complexions that people generally find to be more attractive, she adds.

A mathematical relationship called the golden ratio can be found in beautiful faces, according to plastic surgeon Stephen Marquardt. It's also found in nature and other beautiful objects, and is defined as a relationship between lines where "the ratio between the whole and one of its parts is the same as the ratio between its two parts." A credit card, for example, forms what's called a golden rectangle. The golden ratio is also found in everything from Egypt's Great Pyramids, to the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower, to the shape of DNA.

It's a bit harder to scientifically define what's beautiful about non-human objects, but one common thread seems to run through various conceptions of aesthetically-pleasing objects and surroundings: those which mimic the natural world are often seen as the most beautiful. Beauty has been defined by some "as visual input that gives pleasure to the mind," and scores of studies have shown that being around trees, plants and other natural settings help relieve stress and even soothe anxiety and depression.

Beauty is a sense of longing, something we need to enrich our lives

One landmark study in the journal Science found that post-surgery hospital patients who looked out upon leafy green trees recovered faster and left the hospital neary one day earlier than those with views of brick walls. And, as Scientific American reported: "Just three to five minutes spent looking at views dominated by trees, flowers or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety and pain and to induce relaxation, according to various studies of healthy people that measured physiological changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, or heart and brain electrical activity."

"Beauty is a sense of longing, something we need to enrich our lives," says David Trubridge, a furniture designer from New Zealand who has has done research on the scientific roots of beauty. It's no coincidence that humankind's earliest artworks, found in caves in Europe and Africa, were mostly of animals, and parallels to the natural world are found in nearly every endeavor to make beautiful works, he says.

"In all the arts, something is being explored that has to do with beauty," he says. "The sculptor tries to recreate the beauty of the human form, the painter struggles to capture the splendor of nature... The cathedral-builder the majesty of forests, the composer the beauty of birdsong."

But there is also beauty in objects that are functional and simple. For thousands of years, Polynesians in the Pacific built ships that were efficient and faster than anything Westerns created, he says (but limited in scale, since they relied on wind-powered sails). Being beautiful was part and parcel of being good and useful.

Beauty, then, need not be separate from utility, and can instead be seen as a tool--for producing something aesthetically-pleasing yet functional, or to living happily. Indeed, recent research has helped show it seems to be necessary for a healthy existence.

So beauty should not be separated from everyday life, as happened following the Industrial Revolution, during which time profits took precedence over aesthetics; "Dollars now design boats," for instance, "and not craftsmen," Trubridge says.

Apathy towards beauty creates a culture of wastefulness. For instance, you may throw out "cheap crap" like plastic cups but hold onto a well-made mug, he says. "Even cavemen knew beauty mattered, how can we be so stupid?" Trubridge says. "If we deny beauty, we deny humanity and our future." 


Text Douglas Main

douglas main