Beauty: Is it in the Genes or the Brains of the Beholders?

If I said Miss Universe’s face is more average than most women’s, you would think I was making a baseless comment. You would be wrong. Here is why. Humans perceive a face as beautiful based on two main facial features: Symmetry and averageness. The first one is easy to explain. If you draw a line smack in the middle of a woman’s face, if the two halves are equal and mirror images of each other, then the person viewing it would judge it to be good-looking. The second aspect of the face, “averageness” might be harder to understand. “Averageness” doesn’t mean plain looking. Rather, the face would look like a composite of many superimposed faces. It’s as if a beautiful face has extracted the good parts many faces and in doing this “averaging” has removed the bad parts.

Why do we like beautiful faces? Let’s focus just on beautiful female faces. Why does a woman look attractive if she has a symmetrical face? We have to look at this from a biological and evolutionary point of view even though in day-to-day life we don’t think in these terms. If the two parts of the face have developed equally and in a regular fashion, it suggests that she has had good body development. Good body is a product of good genes. So, she would be a good mate and is likely to produce healthy children.

What does averageness signify? According to many scientists, averageness equals heterozygosity. What it means is that the woman’s genes are well-mixed from outbreeding. If a face deviates too much from that of the average population, it suggests homozygosity, meaning genes were not mixed well which signifies a lot of inbreeding. People with well-mixed genes tend to be resistant to diseases and parasites.

So, does this mean that men are hard-wired to like a woman with certain kind of looks that automatically tells them that she is beautiful? This is the question I sought to find an answer to. Is beauty in the genes or the brains of the beholders?

RESEARCH ON THE ROLE OF GENES IN ASSESSING FACIAL BEAUTY:

A study of Australian twins by researchers at Harvard University, Wellesley College and University of Western Australia concluded that assessment of beauty is shaped by the environment of people and not their genes. I think this study explains why people differ in their assessment of what is beautiful when it comes to faces. But what about the fact that men all over the world can distinguish “beautiful” faces from “ugly” ones?

Scientists have studied what brain regions are activated when the subjects are presented with beautiful or ugly faces. But beyond saying this region is “involved” and that region is “involved” (a favorite vague word of many scientists and a pet peeve of mine), these studies don’t tell you how the brain judges something to be beautiful or ugly. Also, we don’t know to what extent recognition of facial beauty is learned.

One other problem in studying people’s brain activity to study beauty by sticking them in MRI machines is that such studies depend on photographs on a computer screen which are only two-dimensional representation of facial beauty.

MY OWN OBSERVATIONAL STUDY:

I did my own informal assessment. After beginning this article, I happened to travel to New York City. On the way in Atlanta airport and in NYC, I observed thousands of female faces of all kinds of ethnicities. I came to a couple of conclusions. One, it is rare that one finds stunningly beautiful or appallingly ugly women. Two, there are other factors than symmetry and femininity to make a female face attractive. One obvious and important feature is the nose. The shape of and length of nose relative to the rest of the face. Shape of the jaw is another.

One other important aspect of beauty according to my observations is proportion. The height of forehead, length of the nose, and the height from the lower end of the nose to the tip of the jaw. To my dismay, however, I found out that this idea is not new. The importance of proportion in beauty has been around for a long time. Ancient Greeks believed that the Golden Ratio (or Devine Proportion) in human faces and things conferred beauty. According to this idea, if the length of the woman’s face is roughly 1.6 times (1.618 times to be exact) as the width of her face at the eye level, her face has a basic element of beauty. Proportion of other parts matter as well. There is evidence from research showing that other proportions than the Golden Ratio are considered beautiful in some parts of the world. The key point here that proportions of different parts in a woman’s face contribute to her perceived beauty.

IS PERCEPTION OF FACIAL BEAUTY INNATE OR LEARNED?

Do all men recognize female facial beauty the same way at some basic level? In other words, are the brains of all men programmed to recognize certain features such as the proportion of different parts in a female face? Or do the brains of men have to learn to recognize facial features as beautiful?

According to my research on the literature, part of ability to perceive facial beauty is learned and part of it is innate. For example, scientific studies have shown that 12-month old babies prefer to look at attractive faces compared to unattractive faces. This preference is similar to those displayed by adults. So, it appears that human brains are instinctively capable of judging some aspects of beauty. In support of this idea, scientists in University of Munich and University Hospital in Geneva tested humans for visual preference using images of objects, and found that their preference for bilateral symmetry is unaffected by learning.

This brings us to the question: How do we learn to recognize faces as beautiful? As far as I can tell, people (unless they are in some kind of “beauty business”) are not explicitly taught to recognize a beautiful face. This learning must occur by osmosis. Again, let’s just focus on female faces. After all, we are bombarded with images of supposedly beautiful women. Does this exposure train us to recognize beauty? I think it teaches us to recognize certain types of female facial beauty. I am happy to report it doesn’t impair our ability to recognize beauty. To illustrate this from my own experience, when I was in a Department Store in New York, I saw a woman who had a typical “model look” (It turned out that she was a model after all). I wasn’t particularly taken in by the model’s look. Later that day on the subway, I saw a naturally beautiful woman who in my opinion was more attractive than the model I saw earlier.

MY EXPERIMENT ON IMAGES OF BEAUTIFUL FACES:

After my observation on the streets of New York, I did an experiment. I measured the width of the face at eye level and the length of the face in the images of 50 different women. The women were Hollywood and Bollywood actresses, Miss Universe and Miss World winners, women on TV and some unadorned Indian village women. Among ethnicities represented were Caucasian, African, Asian, and Indian. Out of these, 15 women had a proportion close to the Golden Ratio (1.6), 20 of them had a ratio around 1.5, 12 of them had a ratio around 1.4 and 3 of them had a ratio of 1.7 or close to it. The shape of the noses and jaws varied. The only commonality I could discern was that they all had their facial proportions going for them. That is, different parts of their faces worked together to produce an esthetically pleasing effect.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE:

So, my conclusion is that our brains can tell a well-proportioned face apart from a face where parts are out of whack. My second conclusion is that the Golden Ratio is not the only thing that makes a woman’s face beautiful. Relative proportions of different parts of the face contribute a great deal to the perceived beauty. Beauty may be in the brains of the beholders, but will we ever decipher how the electrified dance of the nerve cells pop the idea of ‘facial allure’ in our heads?

Hate, Trump, and the Human Brain

When Lady Gaga proclaimed from the rooftop “Liberty and Justice for All,” at the beginning of the half-time show of Super Bowl 51, I forgot for a moment all the ugliness happening before and after the Presidential Election of 2016. Especially ugly is the fact that hate crimes increased soon after Trump was elected president.

While the horrid instances of hate crimes continue, it is true, only a small minority of Americans are responsible for hate crimes. This got me thinking. Why only some people hate others so much that they want to commit violence against them? Or, why many people aren’t driven so much by hate? Is there something different in the brain of “haters”? I decided to find out.

Research by scientist Semir Zeki and his colleagues in University College London suggests that there is “hate circuitry” in the brain. What they have found is that when people are shown images of others whom they hate, certain parts of the brain are active. In the human brain, nerve cells are connected to each other in “circuits” much like the electric wires in a house are organized in circuits. For example, in a house, one electrical circuit regulates the supply of electricity to the stove in the kitchen while another controls the flow of electricity to the refrigerator. Similarly, the nerve cell circuits do different jobs in the brain. Some circuits control the movement of body parts while others put together images of the world based on the information coming into the brain from the eyes and so on. This idea of circuits in the brain being responsible for specific jobs holds good for even the abstract things such as fear, joy, love, and hate.

To understand why some people hate more than others, scientists have to figure out how the “hate circuitry” is activated in the brain. There isn’t much information available on this. So, an analogy would be helpful. Let’s consider why some people develop severe mental disorders such as psychosis while others don’t. Some individuals, because of the way their brain is wired, may be more susceptible to developing psychosis than others. While with others, it may be because of the environment they grew up in. Many studies have shown that numerous environmental factors contribute to development of psychosis. Going by this analogy, 2016 presidential election campaign created an environment favorable for hate.

If we consider the uptick in hate crimes after the election, or just incidences of hateful remarks, it seems that these were directed against certain groups of people. Let’s examine hatred for two such groups: Mexicans and Muslims. How do people hating these two groups develop hatred against them? It is unlikely that many haters have personal bad experience with Mexicans or Muslims. The obvious conclusion then is that the election campaign demonized these groups. The political rhetoric on the right constantly stoked fear and anger. These outsiders are coming to take our job away, or worse, to kill us. The fact that some of the haters might have experienced economic hardships in recent years must have made them especially susceptible to such emotional manipulation.

The research on brain imaging shows that the part of the “hate circuitry” has to do with generating aggressive behavior and another part is linked to taking action through a part of the brain that controls movements. Even though current research on hate does not tell us how this “hate circuitry” can be activated to an extent to induce violent crime against the hated individual(s), we can draw parallels from development of psychosis. Research has shown that emotion contributes to development and maintenance of delusion and other psychotic behavior. So, the barrage of remarks made by Trump against Mexicans and Muslims likely roused emotion to incite hate and maintain it.

The hatred fueled by political rhetoric is no different from that promoted by fringe groups and terrorist organizations. Groups that commit terrorism in the name of Islam demonize the West. Even homegrown white terrorists in the West demonize the object of their hatred. For example, In July 2011, a Norwegian man called Andres Behring Breivik opened fire on young people who had gathered for the Labor Party’s summer camp and killed 69 people. He said those people were enemies because they were multiculturists and Marxists. It turns out that even though Breivik carried out the attack, many in Norway shared Breivik’s views. In other words, the environment was encouraging to development of extremism.

In the United States, in recent years, racist people used to be relatively quiet and didn’t openly declare their hostility to others. The haters must have exercised restraint because society appeared to be progressive and tolerant. In the brain, the area of the brain that exerts control over emotional brain regions through thinking and reasoning is called the prefrontal cortex (which I described in a previous posting: Brain and the Presidential Election). If the prefrontal cortex is strong and is working the way it should, it will act as a circuit breaker and prevent the hate circuitry goading other parts of the brain into action. But what if the prefrontal cortex thinks hating is OK? That’s most likely what happened. When Trump openly criticized Mexicans and Muslims it was as if the prefrontal cortex of racists relaxed its control on the hate circuitry. Our leader Trump is doing it. It’s perfectly fine for us to hate. An alternative explanation is that some of the haters don’t have a strongly developed prefrontal cortex and the nasty rhetoric could have activated their hate circuitry without much resistance.

Brain research shows that the “hate circuitry” has elements common with “love circuitry” in the human brain. So, our brain can be weaponized to do damage or used as an instrument for the good of fellow humans. The good news is that it is not predetermined. We just have to guard against our brains being manipulated by career politicians or others like Trump who enter politics to fulfill their personal agenda.

10 Actual Facts and True Thoughts about the Post-Truth Era in America

(1) If you call a person a liar a million times, untruth about that person becomes fact.

(2) If a man says “It’s huge!” it’s huge. Making America Great Again is not part of the Napoleon Boner-part complex.

(3) You don’t need to worry about the future. Many voters in America think the future is going to be just like the past.

(4) Russia good. China bad. If you don’t agree, very sad!

(5) Don’t despair if the concrete government programs that help people are demolished and the promised “beautiful and tremendous” things don’t materialize. You can always look forward to reading the Declaration of America Re-achieving Greatness in a tweet.

(6)  The Founding Fathers were afraid that the majority of the masses wouldn’t do the right thing. What they didn’t foresee is that the minority of the people can turn their worst fear into reality.

(7)  Mainstream Media had its finger on the pulse of the two Coasts of America. If only they listened to the beat of the heartland…

(8)  Educated masses are like thorns in the side of the ruling class. If we privatize schools and make them as expensive as college, then only a select few can get educated and some of them can be groomed to run the country smoothly. Other people can go to privatized jails and get their basic education there.

(9)  Red is the new blue. White is always white. Orange is the new black. Too bad there is no black in the US flag. Otherwise, we could change its colors to red, white, and orange to go with the latest fashion.

(10) Having a President with Post-Truth on his side is not the end of the world. Presidents come and go. Candidates win or lose. A lie for a lie is bad for everyone’s mind. Let’s hope that plain truth will become trendy again.

Kama Sutra and Bollywood Movies

Two of the most recognizable Indian exports to the world are Kama Sutra (Kamasutra) and Bollywood movies. The former gives guidelines for sexual fulfilment and the latter sells sex to the masses in many ways without being explicit about it. People may not know diddly-squat about India but they are aware of Kama Sutra, at least in the West. I originally come from the old country. So, it always warms my heart to encounter people from China, Russia, and East European Countries who know about old-timey Indian movie actors like Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Some can even hum Hindi songs or sing them with words that closely resemble Hindi. These days, Uber drivers tend to talk about Bollywood movies. They always ask “Why don’t they kiss in Indian movies?

I decided not to answer that question superficially but to poke around and go deep to get some satisfactory answer. The simple answer is that Bollywood movies show sex the way they do to get past the Central Board of Film Certification (aka Indian Censor Board), an Indian Government organization that issues certificates for showing the movies in theaters. Two most important certificates are “U” and “A” that correspond to “Unrestricted” and “Restricted to Adults” categories. Obviously, a movie (or film if you prefer) with an “A certificate” has limited audience. So, the movie makers in India try not get an “A” while showing as much sexual stuff as possible. Don’t go thinking that a movie with an “A” can show everything. Far from it. A typical Indian movie with an “A certificate” has probably has less graphic sex than an R-rated Hollywood movie.

My analysis will focus on “Bollywood” which is a lame ass term derived from combining Bombay and Hollywood. Now that Bombay is called Mumbai, perhaps the word should be Mollywood or Mullywood. The Mumbai film industry (Bollywood) produces Hindi movies which are widely known around the world. Apparently there used to be actual kissing in Hindi movies back in the day, like in the 1930s. It vanished from the screen until the 1990s which is when India entered the global market. India got its independence from the British in 1947 but remained a protectionist economy for the next four decades. When the Indian economy opened up, Bollywood became slightly bolder. Even now, in the so-called “liberated” era, Bollywood movies shown in theaters don’t show full lip-on-lip kissing. Forget French-kissing or tongue action. We can blame the Indian censor board for lack of proper kissing in Bollywood movies. But I think the producers also try not to show explicit intimacy because it might offend mass audiences.

Ancient Indians had such a healthy and liberal attitude about sex. Kama Sutra gives details about courtship, amorous advances, and sexual congress (copulation). It also describes oral sex performed by men on men and women on women. But then, the British came to India and stayed for more than 300 years. Indians absorbed a whole bunch of prudish British attitudes about sex. In addition, middle-class morality, which dictates matters of love and sex for many Indians, probably evolved on its own before and after India’s independence. So, Bollywood, in playing safe to avoid upsetting a large number of paying movie-goers, comes up with numerous ways to stay within the perceived boundary lines.

How does Bollywood go about showing matters described in Kama Sutra? Courtship usually begins with the leading man and leading woman (hero and heroine) running around trees or doing a vigorous workout for a dance number. Given that there are minimally five or six songs in a movie, this gives ample opportunity for showing amorous interactions between a man and a woman and to thrill the audiences without provoking the censor board to delete the scenes or enraging the bearers of morality in society. During one of the songs, suddenly it rains and the wet sari clings to the curves of the woman and the man and the woman bring their lips close and the camera looks discreetly away. In another song, when the man and the woman are dancing, the woman shakes her butt, gyrates her waist and makes thrusting motions with her hips like a man does during sex. What is the idea behind a woman imitating a man’s intimate movements? I grew up on a farm and so I understand this logic. When a heifer is in heat, she would mount another animal (cow or bull) in the herd to indicate that she is ready to be mounted.

Bollywood delivers sex through other characters as well. Usually there is a vamp (a term for a seductive woman) in the villain’s den. She dances for the visiting bad guys and the hero in disguise (which didn’t use to fool anybody, so now the hero goes as himself). Because she is a slutty woman to begin with, she is not bound by the same rules as the heroine. She can lip-synch and dance to a song with words full of sexual innuendos and make risqué gestures. In a lively dance by Katrina Kaif for a song called Chikni Chameli, towards the end of the song she says “This is just a trailer, I’ve come here to show you the whole film,” and rhythmically jerks her hip sideways and makes a gesture with her forefingers and thumbs as if she is stretching a piece of film where her thighs meet her hip. No red-blooded human male would have any confusion about what she’s talking about.

In the bedroom scenes, nowadays Bollywood movies show more than what they used to. Previously, the hero would lift the part of sari covering the heroine’s head on their wedding night while singing a song about what he is up to, and the heroine would coyly smile and avert her gaze. These days, the woman in the sex scenes bares a lot and the man is usually shown naked from waist up (maybe because nobody wants to see what’s below). The man tugs at her clothes, bites, smooches all around her neck and still doesn’t kiss on lips. The man even goes on top of the woman sometimes but without any explicit hip movements. But apparently, woman-on-top scenes are taken out by the censor board. Sometimes the man and the woman are in a shower or a pool which also is a great way for Bollywood to showcase a hot woman’s body.

Curiously, all Bollywood’s efforts to purvey sex seemed to be aimed at males. Is it because middle-class morality in India needs the women in society to be pure and innocent? What Bollywood cannot (yet) exploit and society wouldn’t admit to, is the report that Indian women watch porn and more of them do than their counterparts in other countries. Can Bollywood deliver soft-porn to women like it has been delivering it to men all these years?

The Brain and the Presidential Election

If I say, Democrat or Republican, a candidate doesn’t have to be competent or knowledgeable to be elected the President of the Unites States, I probably piss off the majority of people in America. I will worry about pissing off other parties when they start to matter. Now that I’ve riled up the rest of America, I say “Calm down!” I am trying to understand what the fuck happened in the 2016 Election like every one else. I just want to apply brain science to figure out what it takes to win a presidential election in America. Before I dive deep into the topic, here’s the bottom line: the human brain doesn’t give a shit about policy or positions unless the latter are the Kama Sutra kind. All it cares about is attraction and emotion.

I am not trying to understand how a pussy-grabbing rich Manhattanite Yankee can win votes in the Deep South, or a lying life-long public servant Mid-Western transplant can win votes in New York. Dyed-in-the-wool democrats would even vote for a left-of-commie candidate. Hard-core Republicans would vote for a candidate supported by right-wing fringe groups.

The argument I am about to put forward applies mainly to the brains of swing voters. I mean people who are not Democratic or Republican loyalists. For a Presidential candidate to be successful, he has to win these people over. In other words, the candidate has to have a broader appeal beyond the base, Democratic or Republican. He can do it with charm and great speeches like Barack Obama and Ronald Regan did, or with words that strike fear or anger as Nixon and Trump did. So, Obama and Regan won the brains over with attraction and Nixon and Trump did it with emotion. Inability to do either is why Hillary Clinton lost the election. This is evident when you consider the fact that many people who previously voted for Obama voted for Trump.

You can apply this logic to every Presidential election going back to John F. Kennedy’s in 1960, which is when the first televised debate occurred. Nixon with a five o’clock shadow was no match for handsome and charming JFK. Since then, because we can see the candidates on TV, the reaction of our brains is more akin to what it does when we see people is real life. I closely followed every presidential election since 1992 on TV and I learnt about the past elections. I also heard speeches of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter when they showed old footage on TV. The only election I didn’t have a handle on was that of Lyndon B. Johnson’s. I knew he was riding the emotional tsunami caused by JFK’s assassination. But did he have anything going for him otherwise? I tried to dig up stuff about personalities of LBJ and his opponent Barry Goldwater on the internet without much success. So, I decided to keep an open mind and determine for myself by hearing their speeches on YouTube. I was inspired by LBJ’s speeches. Goldwater’s speeches didn’t do it for me. He had good words but delivered them with a flat affect. No emotion and so no reaction in my brain.

The human brain is attracted to charm in all aspects of life. For example, research has shown that charming people sell more stuff than others. They also tend to be more persuasive in general. Studies on voting behavior of people in the United States and Europe indicate that candidates’ personality traits play a significant role in their chances of getting elected.

For our brains, part of the “attraction” in candidates is novelty. This may be one of the reasons why it is extremely hard for the same party to win the White House for a third term. In recent memory, it has happened only once: Republican George H. W. Bush’s one-term presidency after Ronald Regan’s two terms. Bush, while not terribly charming, was helped by Reagan’s popularity and his running mate Dan Quayle’s good looks. More importantly, his opponent Michael Dukakis was duller than Bush and hurt himself by pulling stupid stunts like posing on a military tank.

But the important thing to consider is that the same Bush, in spite of successful First Gulf War, lost to good-looking and charming Bill Clinton in 1992. Also, perhaps by then the voting brains were tired of the Republican Party. Another one-term president, Jimmy Carter also benefitted from novelty-seeking voters sick of Nixon era political scandals. So, down-home peanut farmer untainted by Washington dirt must have seemed like an interesting and desirable choice. How strong is the influence of novelty on our brains? All you have to remember is that the brain areas activated by novelty are pretty much the same as those activated by recreational drugs.

Neuroscience research has shown that humans make decisions based on emotion all the time, from shopping to mate choice. Voting for a presidential candidate falls somewhere in between in the spectrum of decisions our brains make. Emotion is often used as a short-cut to decision-making in place of deliberate thought. A part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) can override the effect of emotion. The PFC, however, does not have absolute mastery over other brain parts. It’s like a reasonable semi-strong Chief Executive Officer constantly in tug of war with the emotional employees to determine the direction for the company. The PFC can only win if its nerve cells have strong activity, which is difficult to achieve. The brains of most people go with the easy route, the gut feeling which is intimately connected to our nervous system controlled by emotion. So, a presidential candidate can create positive emotion in you like Obama did with the “Yes, we can” slogan and speech-making like a preacher and lead our brain in his favor in the polling booth. Or, a candidate can strike fear in our brains by painting a dark picture of the future without him and stoke your outrage (or perhaps even white rage) against certain groups of people like Trump did to goad you to vote for him.

So, if you are a Democrat or a Republican and have oodles of charm and can evoke emotion in citizens, or if you can elicit anger or fear in people, don’t worry about your thin resume or lack of national political experience. Throw your hat in the ring for the next presidential election. Remember one thing though. You have to be better at reaching voters’ brains through ‘attraction and emotion’ than your opponent.