Beauty is a strange thing. I’ve often wondered why human brains are so concerned with it. There was an old song I loved as a teenager by the band Counting Crows called Mr. Jones. In it they sing,
“I was down at the New Amsterdam staring at this
Mr. Jones strikes up a conversation with this black-
haired flamenco dancer
She dances while his father plays guitar
She’s suddenly beautiful
We all want something beautiful
I wish I was beautiful”
When most people think of beauty, they think of sexual attraction and I guess I’ll talk that for now. If I were to ask most people why we feel this sense of beauty in the opposite gender (or if you’re gay, same gender), they’ll say it evolved to stir us to reproduce. Men and women are drawn to one another so that we’ll procreate and have babies. There’s no doubt that’s true, but that doesn’t explain most of it.
If you look at the animal kingdom you see some rather bizarre mating rituals. For example, to impress a female, male hippos will stick their rear end in the female’s face, defecate, and then sling their feces all over with their tail. Giraffes will dip their long necks down to one another’s rear ends and pee on one another’s faces to drink and exchange urine. The classiest of all may be the birds of paradise, who build elaborate, colorful nests, sing songs, and perform articulate, graceful dances for their partners.
What does any of this have to do with survival? What does any of this have to do with anything?
The other day I had someone recommend I watch a show on MTV called Catfish. It’s about people who fall in love online but they’ve never met in real life. Along with the hosts, they track one another down, meet up, and oftentimes find out the person they fell in love with isn’t who they say they are. Anyways. I wanted to share my state of mind watching an episode.
One episode began by showing this absolutely beautiful woman and her Instagram account. She was a young, twenty year old woman, who was working as a waitress. Her hair, face, body, she was just perfect. As I stared at the screen, I found myself wondering, “Why am I attracted to this woman as opposed to others.” There was nothing interesting or compelling about the young woman’s personality. She didn’t seem particularly intelligent. Yet here my mind was saying, “Now this woman here. That’s someone to mate with. Right there.” People often say that woman just won the genetic lottery.
The show featured her trying to get in touch with another guy she met online. He was in a band and looked like Justin Bieber. He was wearing gold chains, wore his hat backwards and to the side, had stylish hair, and six pack abs. He was a sort of singer/rapper who played guitar, and when these two met up he sang her a corny love song about how nervous he was and how bad he wanted to meet her. He was apparently cool and this lovely woman was mesmerized. Hippos sling feces, we make squealing voices, strum on a wind instrument, and look into one another’s eyes while wrapping ourselves in dead plant fibers.
It’s particularly interesting to note that when we perceive beauty, nothing supernatural is going on. Neuroscientists have narrowed down the exact areas of the brain which judge beauty. I’ll show you.
When the Counting Crows told us that we all want to be beautiful, they were saying we all wish we could look at ourselves in the mirror and those little red areas of our brains would fire with just the right sort of electrical storms. In fact, neuroscientists have identified the exact sort of electrical patterns needed to create a subjective sense of beauty, and ugliness too.
So when I was looking at that young beautiful woman on the screen, my medial orbito-frontal cortex was pulsing with just the right voltages and patterns, leading me to say, “Wow, she’s pretty.” If this brain area of my head was damaged, I would lose an important planning network of my reward system. I would become hypersexual, swear excessively, become a compulsive gambler, and likely fall into drug use.
What I find interesting about this is that I could rewire this brain area and make anything beautiful or anything ugly. I could make a fat, old, ugly woman the most beautiful creature you’ve ever laid eyes and that young pretty girl hideous. In fact, I could make you completely mesmerized by an old dirty shoe in a junkyard. You’d look at it and think you’d seen an object from heaven. I could make you love the smell of vomit and hate flowers. It’s just a complicated neural network of electrical signals. It would be hard to change, but not impossible in theory.
Earlier today I was thinking about how this applies to religion. Christians dream of dying and going to heaven, which is supposedly a beautiful realm without pain. Well, why do we think this world isn’t beautiful? Why do we need mansions, open fields filled with flowers, and angelic clouds? It’s our medial orbito-frontal cortex and the ways our sensory systems are wired into our amygdala and limbic systems. The universe evolved to become self-aware and as certain emotional and sensory systems developed they wired themselves into emotional systems and the human organism came to look at itself and its environment in strange ways, telling itself it needs to change the natural order of world into some other form.
Every other animal is fine walking around naked. They’re fine with nature as it is. They build structures to escape the elements, protect valuable turf, and provide for their young, but that’s it. Most other animals (besides the birds of paradise, say), will mate with any appropriate member of their species. They’re not picky. If the female’s body is symmetric, a gazelle will mate with another gazelle. Same with seals, dogs, and gophers. Humans are just quirky.
Take that young boy singing to that pretty girl with his guitar. What’s going on here? Why this bizarre mating ritual? Well, as humans were evolving, we were developing a sense of language by uttering sounds to one another and gestures. We all know that various grunts and utterings carry emotional contexts. Someone may be angrily yelling or whimpering in pain. They’re totally different sounds and our brains slowly evolved to process sounds in a way and interpret the emotion behind them. These sound processing systems were slowly and gradually connected up to our emotional centers.
Music is a form of emotional communication through sound. It probably started out by our brains evolving processing systems for emotional grunts and other things, but certain components of the sounds began to be processed in universal ways, and so certain types of sounds changing over time became linked directly to certain emotional centers. It was intended for speech and grunts, but we started singing and banging instruments and found we could induce emotions through playing instruments. And so, music evolved in humans right alongside language.
I’ve been studying all of this a lot lately. There’s a lot of research into why we find art beautiful. What draws us to certain paintings and what happens in our brains when look at a work of Picasso? Why do we like music? I’ll have to share a lot more of what I’ve found out another time. I want to more deeply understand beauty and aesthetics in the human mind.