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  • Nikita Agrawal

How do we perceive Beauty?

Finding beauty in the beast.

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When you hear the term "beautiful", what is the first thing that comes to your mind? What is it that you associate the most with beauty? Where do your eyes find beauty? Something that I perceive to be extremely beautiful, might not be beautiful for you. Yet, aren't there so many things that all of us collectively agree to be beautiful? And this unspoken consensus or instinct exists without ever having agreed on it prior to making the observation. Because we just know?

There are instances in life where we will be attracted to someone or something without being able to explain why or how. Which begs the question, do we ever control what beauty is for us? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? Or does beauty, control us? Is it predetermined? Or is there beauty in everything (if we look hard enough)? Is there beauty in the coffee mug I'm drinking from right now? Or am I just finding ways to be intolerably positive in life?

What is beauty?

Beauty as a concept plays on both sides of the coin. It is both universal and personal. It can be both objective and subjective. Beauty can be defined either as an objective property of the thing that we are observing or as an attribute elicited by the response of the subjective observer. According to the Oxford dictionary, (physical) beauty is a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form that appeal to the senses and arouse a pleasant feeling in us. We typically observe beauty in nature, architecture, people, or visual art.

Which configurations of line, color, and form are beautiful to us?

This is the same question that neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee asked at a TED conference, which he then expertly proceeded to answer. His research found that, historically, beauty has been "sculpted by factors that contribute to the survival of the group". An example of one of these factors that still influence us today is symmetry.

In nature, symmetry means that everything is as it should be. We constantly see it in trees, leaves, fauna, and flora, so it is very familiar to our brains as a reference point of what things should look like. Asymmetry in plants, animals, and humans has often been used as an indicator of abnormalities or parasitic infections. Our ancestors used this knowledge to evaluate their environment and react to danger quickly. The memory that symmetry means "good health" is retained in us and we now associate symmetry with the right way to look.

Another factor that appeals to us is average proportions. Ever wondered why mixed-race individuals are considered to be more attractive? People with mixed features usually harbor greater genetic diversity and represent a wider population. As a result, they have facial proportions closer to the average of all people combined, and composite or average faces are perceived to be more attractive than each individual face contributing to the average. The infamous golden ratio is also a way to "measure" beauty in proportions, although it stays controversial because there isn't enough scientific evidence to back that it proves beauty.

(Isn't it ironic that math and art, subject matters which are often deemed to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, can't exist without the other? Beauty is all about geometry. Beauty is math. The way we determine what is beautiful is literally a logical, mathematical phenomenon.)

Is beauty important?

There are certain things that can be deemed more beautiful to us because of their form. But, does it matter? What does beauty do for us?

Perceiving more beauty around us is actually linked to higher levels of happiness. There is evidence to show how surroundings that are aesthetically pleasing to us have the greatest effects on our everyday wellbeing. Beauty is important because of how it makes us feel. It's more important than we may realize. Beauty is a subtle trait, but we still somehow recognize it when we see it. Therefore, beauty (or the lack of it) in our surroundings has the potential to influence us strongly without us knowing it.

Research conducted by medical institutes examined the effects of displaying visual arts in hospitals on inward patients, and there was evidence to demonstrate how these enhanced surroundings were beneficial to their wellbeing and physical health. One study found that patients required less pain medication and it shortened their length of stay in the hospital. Another one had similar findings and showed how it positively attributed to the patient's sense of comfort, safety, and satisfaction with the medical care they were receiving.

Is beauty always good?

No. Especially when we are only concerned with outer beauty. Beauty can be deceiving and deceives us all the time actually. Our brains reflexively associate beauty and good, which causes us to believe that beauty is good. This unfair bias reveals beauty's ugly side. This bias has been tested numerous times to show how attractive people receive all kinds of advantages. We favor "beautiful" people by assuming they are more intelligent, trustworthy, and deserving of higher pay. The opposite is true for people with minor abnormalities because we correspondingly have a "disfigured is bad" stereotype, and regard them as less competent or hardworking. This bias is further perpetuated in movies and mainstream media, as the villains (i.e. the "bad guys") are usually portrayed as physically unattractive or disfigured beings, which polarizes these associations.

Innate beauty is more important than physical.

While we might know and understand this truth. Our brains are wired to process beauty first by what we see on the outside. It's hard to stop these judgments from being made, but we can try to not be blinded by them. The physical nature of something is really only as good as its intrinsic nature. For example, an initial attraction to someone because of their beauty can easily be changed if their character is not attractive. The reverse is also true and we can find beauty in something mundane because of its real value. Beauty is diverse and has no limitations.

Actively find ways to beautify the space around you, while consciously looking for beauty in things you would otherwise overlook.

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