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When Beauty is Average

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Beauty is average. This is truly a paradigm shifting truth. It has been confirmed by both digital photography studies and new understandings of how our brain processes information. It turns out Plato had it right when he said there was a place where ideal objects exist, he just didn't know he was describing our cerebral cortex. The ideal table, for instance, is a mental construct or image in our brain that allows us to recognize an object as a table despite infinite variations in size, shape, purpose, color, aspect, texture, design, etc. This is a remarkable ability in itself. But then comes the discovery that the most beautiful human faces end up being an average face.

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The idea that beauty is average comes from the digital age where photographs can be rendered in discrete pixels. The size of the pixels determines the resolution of the photographs. High resolution photographs have many more pixels. Some researchers got the bright idea of taking a lot of high resolution digital portraits of men and woman and then averaging the value of all the pixels that comprised their male or female faces to create composite images. The images they created of the pixel averaged faces turned out to be strikingly beautiful.

Next the researchers took the composite images along with the original digital photographs of the faces that made up the composites and showed these to lots of people. They asked the subjects to rate or rank the beauty of the faces. The researchers found that the averaged pixels images, the composites, were most often rated the most beautiful. 

The researchers suggested that as a species the ability to identify beauty, or the average face, may have some natural selection value. They speculated that people with an exactly average appearance may be more healthy, normal or able to have children. 

What the study also showed, but what the researchers didn't highlight, is the amazing ability of the brain to identify the exact average of so many faces it encounters. If you think of a bell curve from statistics, the exact average is that thin line bisecting the normal range while the whole range of normal is huge. Just look around and you will see tremendous variations of the human face, yet we have no trouble beholding the beauty of an "average" face. Still, the exact average of all faces occurs in very few individuals within the population. This fact preserves the truth that beauty is actually very rare.

If it seems like an impossible task for the brain to identify the approximate average human face, then recent understandings of the hierarchical nature of how our cortex processes data suggest how this is done. It turns out that our cerebral cortex creates salient, enduring representations of the objects we see every day. This allows us to rapidly and correctly identify an object no matter what portion of it we see or what individual attributes it may have.

This cortical talent allows us to create an ideal image of the human face. Add to this the fact that we seem to have a preference for the ideal, or the average. This operates like the regression to the mean in statistics. For example, it is more likely that tall parents will have children who are slightly shorter then they, while short parents will likely have children who are slightly taller.  (This was true in my family) 

So beauty is average and our brains have a nearly universal sense of beauty to which we are attracted. We share this sense of beauty because we all have a similar set of faces from which the average face emerges.

This has profound social implications. For example, it may explains how in my desire to be different as a young man I found myself conforming to my peers. 

When I was young, I wanted to distinguish myself from my parents generation. One way I did this was by crudely cutting off the legs off my blue jeans to create cut-offs. It turns out everyone in my generation was doing the same thing. In trying to be different I conformed to others who, like me, also wanted to be different. I identified with an image of who I wanted to be that happened to be the idealized, or exact average, of every other young person wishing to make the same statement.

I believe this self-selected peer conformity is a ubiquitous feature of human nature. It is made possible because of our ability to create idealized composite images of the groups we associate with or objects we see combined with our preference for the ideal. 

To illustrate the point, if I asked you to imagine yourself as a Harley motorcycle biker, your brain would conger up an image of a "typical" biker that approximately represents the average appearence of a Harley biker. If you acted on this image you might buy and personalize a leather jacket, and do the same for other garments and accessories, until you were satisfied that you fit in with this self-selected peer group. 

We effortlessly engage in this self-selecting conformity to peer groups with which we wish to associate. This helps explains how humanity can be both so diverse yet so conforming at the same time. We are always moving toward some median point, some idealized average image of the groups with whom we identify, even as those ideal images are constantly shifting over time. But when it comes to thinking about beauty, I find it oddly reassuring that what makes beautiful people so special is the fact that they are so wonderfully average. 

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Brian Lynch is a retired social worker who worked in the areas of adult mental health and child protection for many years. His work brought him into direct contact with all the major social issues of the day and many of our basic social (more...)

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