Thursday, July 8, 2010

On Beauty



There are times when I imagine myself an alien living here, a witness to the madness, separated from it all, whose sole task is to simply observe, ponder, revel, and for lack of a better word, brood. A giant, meticulously crafted clockwork is before me, created by itself, honed through time and flowing forward at an ever present pace, and here I am, foreigner on his own planet, watching it march on, tick away. It’s like a human zoo, or a history book called Present that I’m reading, quite apart and removed from the events taking place before me, as much so as anyone reading actual history is separated from the events recorded therein. But then there are those moments when I’m ripped from this perspective, this remote, unattached view—when beauty strikes.

Driving about, a simple ton or so in the megatons of steel, glass, rubber and flesh on the highway, I might be thinking some nasty thought about one of the vehicles in proximity when I’m dumbstruck by a skyscape, burning in royal reds, yellows and oranges, towering clouds, clearly the home of some beings greater than us, unaffected by the train of madness crawling underneath, majestic in its posture, bravely facing the sun and reflecting a beauty unique, yet likely to return in some different but similar form some other time. I must still be an observer if I’m noticing it; yet, I don’t feel like I’m on the outside looking in anymore. Engross, captivate, rivet and enchant: these are the things beauty is capable of doing. It can also enthrall, but for me, at least, that’s only brought about by the most limited form of beauty, that of the alluring female form.

Let us stay on the larger set of beauty though, the non-romantic or non-sexual kind of beauty. It’s quite easy to see why we’re drawn to the form of Michelangelo’s David,
the countless oils of gods, goddesses and nymphs, the ripe flesh of Hawaiian Tropic models.
The distinction is much in the same way we often use the word love. The first meaning that comes to my mind is the romantic meaning, the quality of emotion used when expressing feelings for a sexual partner or one would like to have as a sexual partner. This is the most limited use of the word though and the far more common meaning of the word is of another type, such as the bonds of familial or friendly attachments. Of all the things people ‘love’, the smallest subset is of the type I, and I guess most other people as well, think of when we hear the word in isolation—romantic love—whereas most forms of love are NOT of the romantic kind. A parent loves its child, the child its sibling, the sibling its pet, the pet its food, etc. And so is beauty: the vast majority of things we call beautiful are not things we want to fuck. Why?

I ask that question in all seriousness. Why should we find things we have no sexual interest in beautiful? Why would we lump them together with the same word? Why should we be
enraptured by breasts or biceps and prose or poetry? Why would a mound of dirt called a mountain have any appeal to us? Why does the rich smell of a mature pine forest engross me? Why does a sunset make us stop what we’re doing and force us to marvel at its beauty? It’s difficult to think of reasons. Ripe titties and rippling muscles have all too easy explanations: sexual evolutionary drives. But why should I find some landscapes more appealing than others? Why should I prefer the sound of a Chopin melody over that of the random squeaking of a tree or the grating squawks of an annoying bird?

There are probably plenty of good books and articles discussing this but I’m too lazy to hunt them down and will rely on my own thoughts and what I can remember from lectures, radio stories and discussions seen on the internet. In fact, I’m certain there are a lot of worthwhile books and articles written by women and men who put a lot more time into this topic and certainly a lot more effort than I’ll ever commit to, taking painstaking efforts to check the strength of their hypotheses and theories through careful research and experimentation, whenever possible; but I’m lazy and need the distraction offered by blog writing. While I do consider this half-baked, lazy, incomplete and often incoherent, I'm posting it simply to be done with it so I can move on. Plus, there'll be lots of boobies, and boobies are nice. And butts...mmm...butts. AND THIGHS! DELCIOUS, SWEET THIGHS!!! BUTT...all in good time...moving on.


On NPR I heard a story about patios. I think it started with the real estate crash. They were talking about how homes with front patios fared better in the market than those without; and then they dug a little deeper: why?

The person they spoke with thought it had to do with an evolutionary bias present in most of us: we prefer wide open vistas, with a secure shelter behind us. That is, we like to see what’s going on without having to worry about not having eyes in the backs of our heads. Patios fulfill this function—they sit at the front of our homes, our shelters, and look out onto the surrounding neighborhoods or terrains. This makes sense to me. More generally, think about the sorts of landscapes we like, of all the settings that you find pleasurable and how many of them are conducive to easy living. Deserts and tundra hardly seem to make the landscapes we most cherish. (Sure, they might be beautiful in some sense, but I think in those cases it’s because of something more abstract, which I'll get to later.)

When I was in Sweden most recently, I noticed quite a common setup in the countryside: a clearing for fields with a house at the threshold where the woodlands met the grasslands, the front of the house on a hill, overlooking the field, the back of the house to the woods, enveloped in the embrace of a forest hug. Same idea as a patio writ large.

What about manmade environs? Fountains are often quite attractive—running water. Most major cities are near some sort of water source, be it a lake, river, or sea. But if it’s a sea, more often than not it’s at the mouth of a river. Running, fresh water is essential. Shaded areas have always been pleasing to me as well. One of my fonder memories as a child is of a setting that combined the two, that of an outdoor cafĂ© patio, with a canopy of cross worked wood, ivy growing throughout, offering a speckled shade that allowed some light in, but only in patches, with fountains throughout, stone and tile flooring and walls. Settings that are pleasurable to be in offer a sense of beauty I think, and it’s because they’re so conducive to maintaining a desirable homeostatic condition: never too thirsty, hot, or far from whatever is needed.

Mountain vistas offer an extended epistemological horizon, which adds to a sense of security: you can see what’s coming long before it arrives. Mountain ranges offer a wall of protection, more so than an obscuration of what’s on the other side, I’m guessing, and valleys even more so.
Lush, verdant landscapes offer the promise of bountiful food. Puffy clouds and blue skies offer freedom from the tempest, but I think we must be careful here, because deserts can have nice blue skies as well, and the beauty offered by them might be working on another bias we have inbuilt.

Now what about ugly landscapes? Think of where the bad guys live in Disney cartoons. It’s often overcast, red and black, barren and jagged: not very supportive of life as we know it. Or how about where the witches live? in old, rotting forests, full of decay, with no openings in the treetops, just dark and dank, in need of a forest fire and rebirth.

What about the desolate landscapes or scenes that are still beautiful? The Badlands, the soft rolling sands of endless deserts, the uniform white sheets of arctic ice under a midnight sun, the awesome heights and displays of distant thunderstorms—many of these things people often find beautiful, but why? I think this is where we have a bridge between what may be instinctual appreciation of beauty, such as of environments conducive to our better welfare, and more remote forms of beauty, such as a well crafted poem or piece of abstract sculpture.


We often use words to describe things that really aren’t appropriate when we think about it long enough. Ramachandran uses the example of saying cheddar cheese is sharp. Everyone knows what he means by this; no one REALLY thinks he means that you ought to be careful with cheddar cheese because you might cut your mouth with it. Sounds can be sharp too, or flat. There’s a condition called Synesthesia where senses can get mixed, like certain tastes have an association with another sense, sounds may have visual accompaniments, or, as the case may be, numbers have colors associated with them, e.g. a black five on white background is tinged green whereas three is tinged red. Artists tend to be more likely to have this condition than the average person pulled from the population, as well as other conditions, like depression and bi-polar disorder. But what should be clear is that we’re all Synesthetes to some degree; the fact we use words like sharp for flavors and sounds displays this.

What does this have to do with beauty? I think many of the things that aren’t readily explainable, such as why we would find some series of sounds more pleasurable than others, operate by hijacking the neural systems used primarily for other functions, such as visual discrimination or language comprehension and generation. Hijack is a poor word, because that would imply those neural systems ARE for something, ONLY that something, and for NOTHING else. As I’m sure all thinking people are aware, we weren’t designed, so while eyes may be for seeing, if they should happen to serve some other useful purpose, such as attracting a mate, we can’t very well say they’re ONLY for seeing, even though most of us would agree that is their primary purpose.


Let’s look at the case of music. Why do we like it? Why are some series of sounds considered harmonious and others not? What purpose does music serve? If it can relieve stress, then why? What was the initial purpose? Did our ancestors once serenade one another with songs? My inclination, and it’s not my idea but one I heard suggested, is that it’s a byproduct of our language capacities. Our brains have developed certain modules for language comprehension and generation. All music falls in an audible range by definition; if the pitch is too high or low we don’t hear it. Tempo ranges are important too. If I were to play any melody, no matter how well known—say Three Blind Mice—slow enough, no one will hear it as Three Blind Mice. If you slow a melody down too much, which I’ve heard professional musicians do from time to time, you kill the cohesiveness of the piece, the flow. Same thing applies to going too fast. My guess would be that it’s because language and words follow the same rules. Given the limitations of our vocal and auditory apparatus, our regions for comprehension probably honed in on a certain range of pitch and tempo.

Melodies can even be described in ways that are usually reserved for human behaviors, using words that have very specific meanings. To stick with just one composer, listen to these Chopin examples: playful , thoughtful & flirtatious, mournful, distraught...all without saying a word! (If you've never heard his first ballade through to completion, find a comfy chair, close your eyes and enjoy. It's absolutely amazing the entire time. Brilliant!)

Imagine a musical scale that moved in increments of a few Hertz per note, instead of the 12 note scale Western music uses where octaves double the frequency of the tone. If you get the steps too short between notes we cease to hear individual notes. The term in Psychophysics is Just Noticeable Difference, or JND. They tend to be logarithmic if I’m remembering correctly. The point is it’s a bias for certain things and not others…an aside is necessary…

Most of psychology is about biases, a word used often enough now to justify this aside, I should think. One of the tragedies of humanity is that we outgrow our evolutionary makeup. We prefer some tastes over others, which seems easy enough to explain. We still like sweet things even though they’re in overabundance, a simple quick trip away. No, that in itself probably isn’t tragic, but other biases are. Take mass communications for example. Never in our history have we had to deal with anything like it. Without trying to sound too much like some Orwellian dystopia, we must acknowledge we have certain weaknesses when it comes to mass communications. Large portions of the population can be persuaded through the use of propaganda and selective displays of information. The 20th Century taught us that, among other things like how our technological capabilities have succeeded our tribal mindsets. But we’re straying, even for an aside this is too much; we must get back to the point: biases. Humans, given their seemingly endless variety of behaviors, are rather routine creatures. All of us are the product of breeding, so that’s been going on for quite some time. We all need to eat. And when we think no one’s looking, something rather interesting happens: we find we’re rather uninteresting. Almost any good psychological experiment needs to include deception of some kind or other, lest the subjects change their behavior. We’re not blank slates; we come into the world full of biases, biases that led to our ancestors making us and not some other creatures; we behave like cracked records because we were tailored for a certain environment we’ve quickly outgrown to do one thing: reproduce. Since we can pretty much create our own environment at will now, you find we do the same things over and over again: satiate our biased desires. If it's too hot we make it cooler; if it's too cold we make it warmer—we want to eat this but not that, fuck her but not that other her. There’s a reason why McDonalds pop up the world around but putrid, rotting toes never seem to make the menu; why attractive, beautiful people are used to sell products and films while the rest of us pay for the products or films; why people pay for massages and sex but avoid torture; why people spend substantial amounts of money to travel to tropical getaways in secure areas, politically or geographically, while the brochures for Somalia remain untouched. Sure you might find the occasional person who thinks shit smells great, gets off on physical pain or psychological abuse, but it’s unlikely, and our knowledge of such exceptions can often lead us astray—that whole mass communications thing at play again. But most people, no matter their race, sex, height, whatever (I’ve left creed and culture out intentionally) pretty much like the same things. They prefer bubble baths over sand storms, orgasms over pain, etc. Pain is a great example of a hardwired bias. Sure, some things can be learned, but all that is doing, in my opinion, is adding one more leg in the journey from Stimulus to Response, the ultimate goal or ending being the same neural systems that give the feeling of something being good versus bad, those same neural systems more or less hardwired for the more obvious stimuli, like the sight of a Venus or David; the smell of shit, death, decay; the feel of cool water, warm breeze, lover’s caress; the taste of sweet fruit; the sound of a humming mother, and so on. If someone finds the smell of shit enjoyable, there’s some history there, a series of conditionings that most likely had to overcome the initial repulsion to the stimulus. The closest example I can draw upon personally is that the smell of skunk no longer bothers me much, at all if it’s noticed while driving. If I were to get sprayed I may be repulsed, but because of the habits of my not too distant past, I’ve encountered a similar enough smell enough times, followed by rather favorable sensations that that particular stimulus no longer has the response it once had.

So, the biases, of which beauty is but one, are more or less inherent. And the reason more abstract things can be considered beautiful or not, is because they are pushing the same buttons the more obvious stimuli are. It’s not like there’s a gene that makes a neural region in the brain whose only job is to like bits of rounded flesh with targets at the centers, or a discriminating zone that prefers lithe or muscular flesh over formless, flabby flesh. The parts of the brain that get turned on by such stimuli are probably more general than that (though in the case of sexual attraction there needs to be, in some sense, a higher order level of discrimination or we’d see much higher numbers of homosexuality and/or bisexuality than we do, like witnessed among the Bonobos; and don’t let our own biases make us think males and females really are that much different looking; just think about other species: are the sexes that easy to identify in all of them, such as fish or the more ordinary looking birds?) The study that usually gets touted to make this point is the case of the feeding behavior of chicks from a certain breed of bird, which I can’t remember. Normally the mother has some red dot on its beak at which the chicks will peck to induce vomiting behavior from the mother. Now, if you present a mock, replica beak, and a stick with three red rings on it, the chicks will actually prefer the three red rings and peck more vigorously at that instead. The rule of thumb in the chick’s brain is probably operating on the red and background color contrast, but since it never encountered other such stimuli in nature (only when those curious apes get a hold of one and start manipulating variables) the rule of thumb stuck and worked fine, generation after generation.

The more abstract works of art might be operating on similar mechanisms. Indeed, some visual or audible forms of art may actually be BETTER at stimulating our pleasure zones in the brain than the stimuli they were selected for are. It might just be that when an idea is expressed in words one way as opposed to another, we like it better than had it been presented in another way, because it conforms more closely to how our brains developed to deal with the various problems of language. We might have a bias for certain metaphors over others too, and people like Shakespeare found a way to tickle that part of our brains better than his counterparts.

This might also explain why we think some landscapes are beautiful even though they aren’t conducive to our better well being. Plus, seeing a documentary about the Antarctic is one thing, being stranded there might give a different impression all together. Perhaps the color schemes of the Grand Canyon or Painted Desert excites a region of our brains that overrides the other parts thinking, What an awful place!

We need to be careful in thinking that we have a gene for, a brain region for, or that natural selection had a favoring for any particular thing. To say we like Van Gogh because of our evolutionary history can run the risk of saying too little or implying too much; we don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming too much. However, we don’t want to dismiss a good idea either, or more importantly, fail to acknowledge it, lest we become the moth that flies into a flame. What was once a good preference for moths—flying at a certain angle in relation to a strong light source at night—became distracting in the presence of light bulbs and deadly around candles. Just because something was once beneficial doesn’t mean it will always be that way, like religion or a sweet tooth. In relation to beauty, thanks to mass communications, we see billboards, posters, TV and movies filled with the people whose forms stimulate us rather strongly, and if we don’t pause to think we might believe they’re more common than they really are and our expectations may rise to where disappointment is almost a guarantee, or we may starve and exhaust ourselves in attempts to attain a similar appearance. Learning, or cultural influence, can play a role in what we think is beautiful, but I’m afraid only within a certain range. Should you show a group of faces to just about any culture of people and ask them to rank them in terms of attractiveness you’ll notice they all arrange them rather similarly. Deformities, while speaking nothing about a person’s personality, agreeableness, or other such traits, have huge effects on visual attraction. [Coming up with universals when dealing with humans is quite tricky though, just think of the tribes in Africa that practice facial scarring or the insertion of giant plates into piercings; or, closer to home, the people who put giant holes throughout their bodies—in all likelihood there is someone out there who finds them beautiful.] Same goes with body forms. The most basic traits our brains are picking up are probably some ratios, such as shoulder to hips or height to width.

The rarity of beauty would go a long way in explaining stories of old. In reading stories from long ago, somewhere in the story would inevitably be a girl or woman whose beauty caused all sorts of mischief and scandal. Well, when people lived predominantly in small, agricultural villages, a beautiful woman would indeed be quite the rarity, something men in power would do all sorts of things to get at. I was constantly left with the impression that the narrator or whoever was involved in the story seemed to have been happy just to have seen such a beauty in their lifetime. Without the internet or magazine covers—before pictures, of any way of realistically and easily duplicating images—truly remarkable beauty would certainly be something noteworthy, a bit to tell a tale about.

If you look at our brains and know a little bit about which regions handle which sorts of stimuli or problems, you’ll notice something rather telling. The regions responsible for vision are ginormous. Other telling bits of anatomy are our olfactory bulbs: they’re tiny. Many mammals seem to go basically on smell when it comes to sexual attraction. Sure, there may be other cues, some even visual, but smells are what gets them all worked up and randy it seems. We’re the seeing apes though. For some reason or other, probably the ability to spot ripe fruit from a distance and making trees a point of habitation, our visual areas in the brain are quite advanced. And being the social beings we are, much to my chagrin at times, we add the component of people: being able to separate one another. It even seems as if we have special areas of the brain responsible for being able to distinguish faces, Prosopagnosia being the condition when this ability is no longer present. Our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer groups for the longest time. This seems to have instilled us with some biases that have both been good for us and a hindrance. Xenophobia is probably the easiest to think of on the bad side, and coupled with an overactive visual cortex, racism seems almost too easy to come about. Skin color is a lot more obvious than eye color; body type much more obvious than blood type; hair type more apparent than ear lobes: attached or not. I can’t help but wonder, what would we be like had we been more of the smell oriented type instead of the visual kind? Plastic surgery, gym time, and dieting seem the only ways to alter appearances, minus the occasional make over, and even then the results are hardly as dramatic as we’d often like. How much easier would it be to just come up with a fragrance, a synthetic form of what the attractive-smelly people emit? Think of how level the playing field would become if all it took was a dab of fragrance to get people sexually attracted; all that would be left to consider would be the traits many feel more noble to select from: personality traits such as kindness, intelligence, meekness, sense of humor, generousness, whether or not someone’s laid back or a go-getter, and so on. That is not who we are though.

One last point on this, one which tempts me to go erase a previous phrase in parentheses: I warned that men and women may not be as distinguishable from one another as we readily think, that there may be specialized parts of our brains dedicated to making the distinctions. Well, since we’re predominantly visual apes, we may in fact be rather distinguishable based on appearances. In the modern Western world, with our habitual bathing and dressing, smells are pretty much covered, and those that are noticed tend to be off-putting rather than stimulating—BO or bad breath. So perhaps we need to have more distinctive visual differences between the sexes. Anyone who has studied the human forms, such as in an art class, can quickly appreciate these differences. Many women have the famous ‘hour glass’ shape, while many men can simply be thought of as a large inverted triangle on a smaller, right side up triangle.

Women also have large breasts, possibly even the largest in the animal kingdom in relation to overall body size. What’s more telling is that only about 30% of the average sized breast, by volume, is for milk production, leaving 70% to do what they often do best: get attention. The average male penis size is huge too, when compared to the other great apes. Testicle size is moderate, but the size of testicles are thought to be an indicator of something else, the same thing male-female size differences indicate: breeding habits. If a mammal has large testicles, it is thought to copulate a lot, with multiple mates, versus a mammal with smaller testicles breeding less often. Species that have large males compared to females tend to be of the kinds that keep harems; monogamous species tend to be more equal in size. Since the average human male is larger, but not by much, it would indicate humans aren’t exactly the most monogamous species to be found, though there's a tendency for it—if that’s what we were interested in discussing we could focus on many other observations, but we’re not, so we’ll get back to the point. Could these size differences also be what our brains cue in on to differentiate gender differences? Why not? If you had nothing but a set of physical attributes of a random male listed in front of you to go by and had to pick the one trait that would best predict how a random female would judge him on physical appearance you should pick height, as studies have shown. Of course this grossly simplifies what stimulates people, what turns women on physically and neglects many other factors, but if you only had one trait, height seems to be it. Now, what about men? Countless studies have been done, measuring hip-to-waist ratios, breast-to-height ratios, etc, but either nothing’s been found as simple as height or I was simply distracted by all the talk of breasts that I never remember what the findings were. One study I do recall, though, was where men were allowed to vary the proportions of a virtual model in a computer to their liking. What’s funny is that while, yes, some men preferred women with uncomfortably large breasts, most preferred a size not hard to find on many women. What makes it funny is if you put a woman behind the computer and ask her to make a model she thinks men prefer, she’ll often make the breasts larger than what most men prefer. Men, of course, suffer from the same sort of self-consciousness type behavior. When men are asked to choose a model type they think women prefer, they often choose a model type that’s very muscular, like a body builder type frame. When women are asked to choose the model they prefer, they usually pick a slimmer model, such as that of a baseball or tennis player or gymnast.

Giant breasts and penises: could these be there in part because it helps differentiate us? Men, on average, tend to be far more angular, boney, and muscular than women too. Secondary sexual characteristics, such as facial hair might serve the purpose as well. So, while there may be some non-visual cues humans operate on, we seem largely to be visually stimulated. Women have that whole synchronizing of menstrual cycles thing going on, and can actually rank males in visual attractiveness based on smelling shirts of unseen men, but those are results of controlled experiments and have, in my opinion, little external validity: smell as good as you want, but if you’re a poor, one eyed, syphilis scarred guy, your chances aren’t going to be so good with women that have fully functional visual apparatus.

A final point before moving on to the aspect that inspired this posting to begin with. In early ‘90s, a man by the name of Levay published a controversial paper. He had dissected the brains of heterosexual and homosexual males and found a brain region to be different between the two, in a subsection of the hypothalamus if I’m remembering correctly. Heterosexual males’ region was twice as large as that of homosexual males’, and the homosexual males’ size was comparable to that of women, presumably heterosexual women. Without getting into all the unknowns and potential hoopla such a finding could imply, the point is there seem to be differences in the brain that contribute to who we fancy. When said like that it hardly seems surprising, because if not in the brain, where else? And we all know men and women produce different hormones in different ratios, so the brain and other glands should have different receptors to make use of these differences, right? I want to keep this point as short as possible and only skim the surface of the findings, because it’s wrought with controversy, difficulties and did I mention controversial? But let the lesson be learned, we probably, whether or not it’s this region in the hypothalamus, or more likely in my opinion, a large collection of regions in the brain working in concert, that makes us go after one body type/form versus another. Anyway, enough on that, and let us move on to the good stuff. Women be warned, you may wish to finish here…

Sexual Beauty be continued.

1 comment:

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