No Eye for Beauty

Let me set the stage with a visual here:

Flight attendant: “Would you like a copy of People magazine to read?”
Me: “Er, no thank you. Do you have Scientific American or Popular Mechanics?”

Why on earth would I want to read People magazine? I don’t know who most of those people are, even though they’re supposed to be famous actors or beautiful models or important politicians. My teenage daughter says that the same famous actor was in both the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and I’ll have to take her word for it; I certainly can’t tell! Furthermore, I don’t care about fashion models or makeup. Although I understand why others do, from a strictly intellectual (anthropological) basis: celebrities are important figures in the greater tribe, therefore it behooves us to be able to recognise them.

Among the faceblind there is the concept of “Gorbachev effect” – even the faceblind person can recognize Mikhail Gorbachev because of the distinctive port-wine stain birthmark on his head. (Well, assuming that the guy isn’t wearing a hat …) It’s much easier to recognize someone who is highly divergent from the mean. The more striking people are often either “ugly” in some way, or very distinctive from the local group by virtue of ethnicity or body feature.

This may be one reason why I gravitate towards environments such as graduate school with all the international students, or special education with all of the physical differences. Unfortunately, identification is by distinguishing characteristic — one Indian woman among fifty very “vanilla” North Americans stands out, as does one boy with Down’s Syndrome in a regular classroom. Put her in a family wedding party or him in a Special Olympics tournament, then to my horror I find that they have suddenly disappeared from my visual horizon and I can no longer find “my” person by facial exception. Then I must rely on the slower and less certain factors of gait, voice, mannerisms, or overall body form.

In studying animal behavior, Ron Prokopy came up with the idea of a “supernormal stimulus”, meaning a behavioral sign stimulus that is larger-than-life, something even better and more exciting. For an entomology example, when controlling apple flies we can hang a sticky-coated red ball in an apple tree that still has small, green fruits on it. The apple fly females see this ball that is larger and redder than all the other fruits, and are (fatally) attracted to it as an optimal resource for laying their eggs.

People who are considered to be exceptionally beautiful exhibit a kind of supernormal stimulus: their features are more optimal by being more regular and symmetric than the average person’s. Their features are not just normal exemplars (models) of what a desirable human should look like; they are supernormal, hence they are supermodels.

The ultimate causality for being attracted to “beautiful” people is that even, normal features suggest both good genes and good health. Even though there are various fads among cultures and time periods about what is considered to be “sexy” or “attractive”, there are still some basic qualities that are universally perceived as beautiful because they suggest a healthy, young adult that would be a good mate choice.

From a proximate standpoint, the faceblind person may prefer the faces of people who are distinctive, because they can be more easily recognized, and thus are associated with less stress of identification, and because they increase the likelihood of repeated identification. As you might expect, faceblindness plays hell with dating. (It also has more insidious effects, such as playing hell with one’s ability to network on the job scene — even the person that one can eventually learn to identify on the job won’t necessarily be identifiable in another time and place, plus the faceblind person simply doesn’t build up that large number of interpersonal connections that the neurotypical person does.)

My husband is not extremely different in appearance, albeit when dating he had a beard and wore his hair longer than most men at the time. Alas, he no longer does, and when he’s barbered in an everyday manner I have mananged to lose him in plain sight multitudinous times in our 25 years of marriage. When I misplace him yet again, I stop to try and remember what he was wearing, which is usually a blue shirt (he is very fond of such) but unfortunately so are hundreds of other people. While otherwise focused on taking photographs of plants at a botanic garden, I eventually realised that I’d been absentmindedly tracking the wrong “person in a blue shirt and khaki shorts” (a surprisingly common subspecies of Homo sapiens — even the male of the couple we were visiting was dressed identically, so the guys appeared twinned). Although I can spot a single Viola pedatifida in a prairie, I can’t find my husband in a crowd, so I had to call him on his mobile to arrange a meeting location, whereupon he naturally spotted me first and semaphored dramatically so I could notice him standing there 50 feet away. And so it goes!

In smaller environments, I listen for him, for his asthmatic breathing pattern and his distinctively heavy tread. It’s a good thing that he can recognise me, because he’s hard of hearing, and besides, I have what others have described as an alarmingly light tread (I “sneak up on” them) when I’m not clumsily crashing into objects.

Although there is an innate preference for certain kinds of symmetric beauty among all humans, it would be interesting to see if developmental prosopagnosics are able to distinguish among sets of faces those that are generally considered to be more attractive, and if they are personally more attracted to distinctive faces than those that are generally considered to be more attractive in the normal or supernormal sense. The further purpose to such a line of enquiry would be to explore how much of the concept of “beauty” is innately bound to the process of facial integration and recognition!

Personally I suspect that most faceblind people could identify someone as being classically pretty, but would have different qualifiers on whom they personally find attractive.

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