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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?