Are You Moved by Beauty?

Yes—in ways you don’t realize.

Posted Sep 27, 2019

 "Hand, showing mechanical movement" by Ambroise Paré from the Welcome Library, London / CC BY 4.0
Source: "Hand, showing mechanical movement" by Ambroise Paré from the Welcome Library, London / CC BY 4.0

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; so goes the oft-repeated trope. This figurative pronouncement is supposed to suggest that beauty is so variable and is so unique to each person that a scientific approach to beauty that seeks to derive generalizable principles is misguided.

Beauty, arguably, is in the brain of the beholder. Our brains are more similar than they are different. It turns out that with faces, most of us agree on who is beautiful. A decade ago, my research team and others found that the brain responds to beautiful faces automatically (Chatterjee, Thomas, Smith, & Aguirre, 2009; Kim, Adolphs, O'Doherty, & Shimojo, 2007). Parts of the brain respond to the attractiveness of a face even when people are thinking about other non-evaluative properties of the face, like its shape or identity. Our visual cortex, in an area in and close to the fusiform gyrus that is tuned to faces and objects, responds with increased neural activity in proportion to facial attractiveness. Similarly, parts of our reward systems—the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex—respond to facial beauty automatically. 

If our brains respond automatically to facial beauty, how does this automaticity express itself? Perhaps, beauty is imprinted into the way we move. To test this hypothesis, Natalie Faust, George Christopoulos, and I examined the way people’s hands and eyes move in response to facial beauty when they were performing another task for which beauty was not relevant (Faust, Chatterjee, & Christopoulos, 2019). We started with a set of faces that were previously rated on attractiveness. The top 10 percent were regarded as attractive, the bottom 10 percent as unattractive, and the rest of the faces were regarded as neutral.

The task was simple. On a computer screen, people saw a number at the bottom. At the top right and left of the screen were other numbers. Their task was to determine which of the top numbers was closer in magnitude to the number at the bottom. Each of the top numbers was flanked by an image of a face that was irrelevant to the task of finding the closer number. The faces were attractive, unattractive, or neutral. In some trials, the number closer in magnitude to the number at the bottom was paired with an attractive face, while in other trials, it was paired with an unattractive face. The rest of the trials showed neutral faces. In separate experiments, we recorded how people’s limbs and eyes moved when indicating the closer number. 

In the first experiment, participants moved a computer mouse to select their response. The trajectory of their hand movement was tracked. What we found was that if the irrelevant number was flanked by an attractive face, their limbs moved toward that face before landing on the correct number. An unattractive face in the irrelevant location did not affect how people moved their hand. Thus, beautiful faces influenced the trajectory of the participants’ hands even when all they needed for the task was to pay attention to numbers. 

 Courtesy of Natalie Faust
Schematic of hand movement task. Stimuli are for demonstration purposes. A participant would start at the number at the bottom of the screen, in this case 25. Then they move the mouse to click on the closer number at the top, in this case 26. When the distractor face is attractive, their limb deviates towards that face in its trajectory to the correct response.
Source: Courtesy of Natalie Faust

The pattern of people’s eye movements was different than their pattern of hand movements. Participants’ eyes moved toward and dwelled on both attractive and unattractive faces compared to neutral faces when these faces were in the irrelevant location. Here, eyes were drawn to faces at either end of the beauty continuum—to both attractive and unattractive faces. Our eyes, it would seem, respond to the salience of a face, rather than to its beauty, per se.

To summarize, our visual system apprehends and evaluates faces for beauty even when this evaluation is irrelevant to the task in which a person is engaged. This information is transmitted to our motor system that directs how our limbs and our eyes move. However, the deployment of our limbs and eyes serve different purposes. The hand moves to approach facial beauty. The eyes move to look for salience and are ever vigilant for the unusual, regardless of whether the unusual is experienced with pleasure.

Beauty, it turns out, is in the hand of the beholder. It moves us—literally.

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