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When Beauty is Average

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

http://faceresearch.org/students/averageness

individual face individual face individual face individual face individual face composite face
Individual Faces Composite Face

The idea that beauty is average comes from the digital age where photographs can be rendered in pixel formats.  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 the human male and female face to create a composite image.  The images they created of the pixel averaged faces for men and woman turned out to be strikingly beautiful.

Next the researchers took the composite images along with the digital photos of the faces that made up the composite face, 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 average pixel face was most often rated the most beautiful.  And so we discovered that beauty is literally the average.

The researchers suggested that as a species the ability to identify beauty, or the average face, may have served a natural selection purpose.  They speculated that people with an exactly average appearance are more likely to be healthy, normal and able to have children.  Maybe so.  Who knows.

What the study also proved, 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 a relatively small or thin line within the normal range while the normal range of human faces is huge.  Just look around and you will see tremendous variations of human faces and body types.  But the exact average, or median, of all faces or body types 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 idealized images of every object we see in our world.   This allows us to  rapidly and correctly identify object no matter what portion of them we see or individual attributes they may have, such as  color, size, texture, composition, design, etc.  This attribute also allows us to create idealized images of a human face.

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

This has profound implications for the arts, but even more profound social implications.  It explains how in my desire to be different as a young man I found myself conforming to my peers.  When I was young and wanted to distinguish myself from my parents generation.  One way I did this was by crudely cutting off the legs off my jeans to create cut-off. It turns out everyone else in my generation was wearing them.  I was one of the crowd.  In trying to be different from my parents 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.

As it turns out, this self-identified peer conformity is a ubiquitous feature of our human nature.  It is possible because of our ability to sort out and idealize groups of objects or people. If I asked you to imagine yourself as a Harley motorcycle biker, you would conger up an idealized version of a biker that approximately represents the average 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 the self-identified peer group of Harley bikers.

We almost effortlessly do this sorting and self-identifying all the time.  It explains how we are both so diverse and yet so conforming. We are always moving toward some idealized average image of the groups or things with which we identify even as those idealized averages are shifting over time.  But when it comes to thinking about beauty, there is something reassuring about the fact that what makes beautiful people so special is the fact that they are so average.  It somehow makes me more content being more or less “normal”.

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2 Comments

  1. avwalters says:

    I click the Like button, agreeing, and at the same time knowing, that neither the writer or I could be considered anything near normal.

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