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Beauty and the brain

The phrase "easy on the eyes" may hit closer to the mark than we suspected.

Experiments led by Piotr Winkielman, of the University of California, San Diego, and published in the current issue of Psychological Science, suggest that judgments of attractiveness depend on mental processing ease, or being "easy on the mind."

"What you like is a function of what your mind has been trained on," Winkielman said. "A stimulus becomes attractive if it falls into the average of what you've seen and is therefore simple for your brain to process. In our experiments, we show that we can make an arbitrary pattern likeable just by preparing the mind to recognize it quickly."

The research follows up on earlier studies establishing that prototypical images are rated as more beautiful or appealing than variations of the same thing. The phenomenon sometimes known as the "beauty-in-averageness effect" was first discovered in the late 1800s and was perhaps most dramatically illustrated by Judith Langlois' lab, at the University of Texas at Austin, in the 1990s, when people scored computer composites of 16 faces higher than any of the individual component faces (i.e. the very faces that had gone into creating the mathematically averaged image in the first place).

Other work has since demonstrated that humans have similar preferences for prototypes in a wide variety of other categories, including dogs, birds, fish, cars and even watches.

Yet the question "why?" has remained open. A popular explanation has been an evolutionary, sexual-selection one that goes something as follows: Like symmetry (another reliable predictor of attractiveness), prototypicality signals health and fitness unusually protuberant eyes might be a clue to disease, for example and so is a kind of shorthand for the value of a potential mate.

But whereas that explanation makes intuitive sense when it comes to human faces, Winkielman said, it strains
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Contact: Inga Kiderra
ikiderra@ucsd.edu
858-822-0661
University of California - San Diego
26-Sep-2006


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