Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Facial Aesthetics: Implications for Art.

Now a break from battling Natsoc entryists.

An important scientific paper with regard to aesthetics was published the other day which received widespread mainstream press.

Individual Aesthetic Preferences for Faces are Shaped Mostly by Environments, Not Genes.

The media spin put on this paper was to the effect that the perceptions of attraction were largely an effect of the environment and not genetics. I thought the paper interesting and managed to find a free copy of it from one of the authors' website which appears to be publicly available. It's a very well constructed study, and certainly don't want to argue with the data obtained, though I feel that the authors may have erred on interpretation of the data.

I've reproduced one of the tables below (On fair use grounds) and want to delve into the data presented a bit further.

If we look at B and C we see that there is a remarkable consistency between men and women with regard to rating the attractiveness of faces.  Women who are rated a "5" on the scale by men are very likely to rate a "5" on the scale by other women. This finding confirms previous research--(Google Scholar is your friend)--and strongly suggests that there is a genetic mechanism which rates facial attractiveness in part.

The study showed that 48% of our assessment of facial attractiveness is under genetic control, the remain 52% being attributable-by the authors--to environment.  The authors therefore conclude, on the basis of mathematical weighting that the environment is a more important determinant in the assessment of attractiveness. Logically, that is a perfectly sensible conclusion and yet it is not.

The really interesting data from this study are represented by the graphs D and E which show the individual variations in the assessment of facial attractiveness compared to the mean. What's interesting here, is that even your typical low agreement participant demonstrates a rating schema that is reasonably correlated with the mean ratings. Whist the variation is large the direction is still the same. Attractive faces as still more likely to be rated attractively than unattractive ones regardless of environment consideration. (Table E) In other words, that 48% is exerting a lot of influence.

What appears to be happening is that genetics seem to automatically rank faces in terms of attractiveness and that environment-or other factors-shift people in either direction from that ranking. In other words, that 48% determines where you sit on the rankings in the first place with other factors modifying that initial assessment.  A face that has a mean rating of "1" is not going to be turned into a "7" even though environment has a greater "mathematical" influence.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the mind has a "hard wired" aesthetic response to facial stimulus. In other words, ideals of facial beauty are already hard coded into our DNA. And it appears that there other aesthetic preferences hard coded as well. The point of this is that these current findings point us towards looking at the subject of aesthetics from an empirical perspective as opposed to a philosophical one. What is beautiful becomes not a question of philosophical speculation but rather observing what the brain does in response to a stimulus. Beauty becomes a stimulus which is capable of exciting the appropriate neural circuitry.

One of the reasons why this shift in approach is important is because a large amount of modern artistic and architectural rubbish is justified on the assumption that beauty is purely subjective. What modern neuroaesthetics is discovering is that there is a fair amount of hard wired responses to visual stimuli and that these responses are objective.  The ugliness of most modern art is not a subjective experience but an observable physiological response.  Judging art by this metric changes the grounds of debate and undercuts many of the principals of modernism and modern art.