Beauty and the Brain
How beauty can make us all a little bit dumb.
It was just another day inside the 6 train in Manhattan. The diverse faces of tired New Yorkers of various shapes, colors and sizes were lined up in front of me. I was allowing myself to go in alpha state when a tall, blonde woman entered the train and stood a few meters in front of me. Her perfectly swept hair and flawless dewy skin made me stare reluctantly. A man beside her was taken aback at the sight of her and kept on stealing long sweeping gazes at her entire form. She was wearing a black a-line dress that framed her slender body elegantly. Her large blue eyes darted a curious look at me. I looked away and pretended to stare behind her. I started looking at other directions to convince her. What I saw were other eyes that kept on darting at her direction. On one of the stops, she exits the train gracefully in her beige stilettos as she swung her vintage Prada bag on her sun-tanned arm. I couldn't help but feel a little sad at the sight that was left around me. It was then that I realized that I had actually missed my stop.
The popular saying "beauty is only skin deep" is one of the ways we try to over-ride beauty's hold over us. But the line is an impotent antidote to its mesmerizing power. We all instinctively know that beauty is not skin deep. It goes deep inside of us. It seems to be a physical manifestation of a mathematical phenomenon. It is a conceptual truth that acquired form.
Nicholas Cage delivers one the best lines I have ever heard about beauty in his 2007 movie, titled "Next": "There's an Italian painter, named Carlotti, and he ... defined beauty. He said it was the summation of the parts working together in such a way that nothing needed to be added, taken away or altered."
Beauty is when all aspects work together to create a captivating experience of order and harmony. Our minds rest when we behold beauty. Beauty is a visual externalization of an internal peace we all seek. When all elements within us become balanced and set right, an experience of beauty overcomes us.
In recent studies using the fMRI, it has been found that when we look at something or someone beautiful, the orbito-frontal cortex lights up. This part of the pre-frontal cortex is also associated with dopamine. In other studies, this part of the brain lights up during Zen meditation showing the possible correlation of beauty with feelings of harmony and peace that we experience during meditative states. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of pleasure and motivation. When your dopamine levels are low, you are prone to depression and anxiety as well as obesity and stress.
This is why men sometimes squander their fortunes on beautiful women. It's really not "just a pretty face". One look at beauty is a shot of happiness and that can get addictive. This is also why some men change their lives for the better when they fall in love with someone beautiful. They are more motivated to accomplish what they need to. It is also the same reason why teenagers line up for hours just to catch a glimpse of pretty boys like Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson. These men's faces may be express trains to dopamine trips.
On occasion, in our desire to constantly gaze at the beautiful, we do really stupid things. Sometimes some people do it by handing their newborn baby to Robert Pattinson so he can pretend to bite his head. Sometimes, they do incredibly stupid things like kill their spouses. Such a case happened to Audrey Munson's lover. When Audrey was in her teens, a photographer approached her when he saw her walking in Manhattan in the 1900s. She later became the face of most of the prominent statues in New York. When she got to her thirties, her lover, desperate to gaze upon that face everyday, murdered his wife to be free to be with her. He was of course caught and the rest of Audrey Munson's life was spent inside a mental institution.
There are a few times when I would be drawn to photograph certain people myself in the exact way Munson's photographer experienced. Recently, they happen to be both actors. I volunteered to photograph them because they are truly wonderful to watch. Their faces conjures stories in my head. Out of curiosity, I borrowed Dr. Stephen Marquardt's Golden Mean mask (supposedly the template of a perfect face based on Phi) and placed them over two of them. Their faces were almost exact fits. The Golden Mean mask makes use of the proportion ratio long been used by Da Vinci on his artworks as well as the architects of the Parthenon and the Pyramids. It is based on Phi, which stands for the number 1.618. This number depicts the underlying organization of all patterns in the natural world. Now studied as Fractal geometry, Phi is found to be the most efficient way nature's energy flows. This mathematical pattern associated with beauty can be observed in the spirals of the cosmos, the pattern of petals on a flower and the shape of shells. Even the human body and body parts obey the laws of Phi proportions. Perhaps because it follows this pattern, we consider it beautiful. We recognize it as a mirror of the forces within us. It calms us down because it is something inexplicably familiar. It is the habit of energy as it recreates the proportions of Phi over and over in eternity.
When we gaze upon beauty, we are actually looking at the creative forces that are at work inside us. It reminds us of the universal direction we are headed to and that gives us purpose and a renewed desire to live. That or, we become too obsessed with gazing at beauty and the promise of joy that it holds that we end up missing our stop... or worse. Much much worse.