Archive for the ‘Social Sciences’ Tag

Mindfulness with No Religious Overtones

We generally think of mindfulness as an idea that has been around for thousands of years, originally emerging out of Buddhist traditions. Many Buddhist researchers are doing great studies showing that mindfulness has an impact on many aspects of human experience. When you understand the underlying physiology of mindfulness, you begin to see that any discussion about human change, learning, education, even politics and social issues, ends up being about mindfulness. That is because mindfulness, in some ways, is simply the opposite of mindlessness, and mindlessness is the cause of a tremendous amount of human suffering.

Deep thinking being linked to any religion is problematic; because it is hard getting across the idea that being mindful is useful, without activating a threat response from the billions of Non-Buddhists who could benefit from it. Why mindfulness is difficult to talk about with the busy people who run companies and institutions, is that these people tend to spend little time thinking about themselves and other people, but spend a lot of time thinking about strategy, data, and systems. As a result, the circuits involved in thinking about oneself and other people, the medial prefrontal cortex, tend to be not too well developed.

Speaking to an executive about mindfulness therefore can be a bit like speaking to a classical musician about jazz. It might look like they could play a little Coltrane, because they deal in sounds, but they don’t really have the circuits for it. We don’t take well to learning new skills, especially in later life, and any reason to not focus on a new skill, like it being linked to a religion other than yours, doesn’t help.

When you explain step by step, how mindfulness works and how it affects brain, and give people a chance to experience it, even the most cynical, anti-self-awareness agitator can’t help but see that they will be better off practicing this skill. The key is to be able to explain the actual neuroscience involved. Here are some of the highlights of how mindfulness impacts the brain, from “Your Brain at Work.”

A 2007 study called "Mindfulness Meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference" by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto, along with six other scientists, broke new ground in the understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.

Farb and his colleagues worked out a way to study how human beings experience their own moment-to-moment experience. They discovered that people have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, using two different sets of networks. One network for experiencing your experience involves what is called the "default network", which includes regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, along with memory regions such as the hippocampus. This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself. If you are sitting on the edge of a quayside in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is our default network in action. It is the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating.

The default network also become active when you think about yourself or other people, it holds together a "narrative". A narrative is a story line with characters interacting with each other over time. The brain holds vast stores of information about your own and other people’s history. When the default network is active, you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, including yourself, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together. In the Farb study, they like to call the default network the ‘narrative’ circuitry. The ‘narrative circuit’ term for every-day usage is easier to remember and a bit more elegant than ‘default’ when talking about mindfulness.

When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze is not a cool breeze, it is a sign that summer will be over soon, which makes you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.

The default network is active for most of our waking moments and doesn’t take much effort to operate. There is nothing wrong with this network. The point here is you don’t want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this network.

The Farb study shows there is a whole other way of experiencing experience. Scientists call this type of experience one of direct experience. When the direct experience network is active, several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. The anterior cingulate cortex is also activated, which is a region central to switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses in real time. Sitting on the jetty, your attention is on the warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze in your hair, and the cold beer in your hand.

Other studies have found that these two circuits, narrative and direct experience, are inversely correlated. In other words, if you think about an upcoming meeting while you wash dishes, you are more likely to overlook a broken glass and cut your hand, because the brain map involved in visual perception is less active when the narrative map is activated. You don’t see as much or hear as much, or feel as much, or sense anything as much, when you are lost in thought. Sadly, even a beer doesn’t taste as good in this state.

Fortunately, this scenario works both ways. When you focus your attention on incoming data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash up, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry. This explains why, for example, if your narrative circuitry is going crazy worrying about an upcoming stressful event, it helps to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. All your senses come alive at that moment.

Let’s recap these ideas. You can experience the world through your narrative circuitry, which will be useful for planning, goal setting, and strategizing. You can also experience the world more directly, which enables more sensory information to be perceived. Experiencing the world through the direct experience network allows you to get closer to the reality of any event. You perceive more information about events occurring around you, as well as more accurate information about these events. Noticing more real-time information makes you more flexible in how you respond to the world. You also become less imprisoned by the past, your habits, expectations or assumptions, and more able to respond to events as they unfold.

People who regularly practice noticing the narrative and direct experience paths, such as regular meditators, have stronger differentiation between the two paths. They know which path they are on at any time, and are able to switch between them more easily. Whereas people who have not practiced noticing these paths are more likely to automatically take the narrative path.

A study by Kirk Brown found that people high on a mindfulness scale are more aware of their unconscious processes. Additionally these people have more cognitive control, and a greater ability to shape what they do and what they say, than people lower on the mindfulness scale. If you are on the jetty in the breeze and you are someone with a good level or mindfulness, you are more likely to notice that you are missing a lovely day worrying about tonight’s dinner, and focus your attention onto the warm sun instead. When you make this change in your attention, you change the functioning of your brain, and this can have a long-term impact on how your brain works too.

John Teasdale is one of the leading mindfulness researchers. Teasdale explains, "Mindfulness is a habit, it is something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort. It is a skill that can be learned. It is accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What is difficult is to remember to be mindful."

Practicing mindfulness is important, as you are more likely to then remember to do it. The key to practicing mindfulness is just to practice focusing your attention onto a direct sense, and to do so often. It helps to use a rich stream of data. You can hold your attention to the feeling of your foot on the floor easier than the feeling of your little toe on the floor: there’s more data to tap into. You can practice mindfulness while you are eating, walking, talking, doing just about anything, with the exception of drinking a beer in the sun, which works for only a limited time before your attention leaves to go and party; the neuroscience of all that will have to wait for another book.

Building mindfulness doesn’t mean you have to sit still and watch your breath. You can find a way that suits your lifestyle. Just build a 10-second ritual into the evening meal, which involves just stopping and noticing three small breaths before one eats. The added bonus is it makes a great dinner taste even better.

What ever practice you do develop, practice it. The more mindful you become, the better decisions you will make, and the more you will achieve your own goals, rather than other people’s goals for you.


Things That Manipulate Our Dreams

When we are sleeping, our bodies do everything they can to stay asleep. So rather than waking us up, outside stimuli of smells, sounds, sensations often become woven into our dream narratives. The dreaming mind has this really cool way of seemingly flawlessly incorporating the outside interference into the storyline of the dream; which means that there are a lot of influences that can shape how our dreams play out. Just keep in mind that our natural dreams, that is to say, those that are not at the mercy of what is happening around us in the real world, help us process our thoughts and feelings about our day. Too much interference is disruptive to the message our dreaming mind is trying to give us.

If you have ever incorporated the sound of your alarm clock into your dream — maybe it became a fire alarm or a Whistle. Real-life sounds can find their way into our dreams’ storylines. There is an app that even monitors sleep and plays sounds specifically designed to evoke certain dreams. Soundtracks can influence the content of dreams, and while researchers do not recommend making a habit out of this; again, it interferes with the cognitive work our dreams are meant to accomplish. Once in a while, if you want to influence a really awesome dream, play your favorite album quietly while you sleep or maybe the sound of the ocean, if you want to dream about a romp on the beach. For a restful sleep, white noise is recommended. White noise drowns out the other sounds around us and will improve sleep, allowing for organic dreaming.

If you smell flowers, chocolate or perfume when you’re awake, it tends to evoke positive emotions, hence it makes sense that the dream would follow a similar pattern. There is a biological explanation, too. The limbic system part of the brain that controls the ability to receive smell also receives emotions. Sleeping on your stomach increases the chances of having a sexual dream or a dream about being persecuted like having a sexual relationship with a big wheel or celebrity, being smothered, unable to breathe, and being tied and unable to move, which all make sense. When we are on our stomach, our genitals are in contact with the bed and they are stimulated and it is harder to breathe, just like when we are having sex or being suffocated. The best way to remember your dreams is to stay in the same position you were in when you woke up. That is really all it takes to be able to start remembering your dreams. Don’t move and stay put. If you wake up to go to the bathroom and want to re-enter the dream you were in the middle of, try getting right back into the position you were sleeping in before getting up.

Not surprisingly, your mental state; not just what happens to us and around us, has a huge impact on our dreams. Depression, for example, can influence our dreams’ color palettes. If you have a dream that is in black and white or where the colors are muted or it is in shades of gray, which can be a symbol for depression. Depression, however, also suppresses dream recall. The weather patterns we dream about are connected to our mind frame, too. Anxiety brings tornadoes, which represent spinning out of control. A clear, calm mind tends to dream of sunny days. The depression and sadness bring rain. Weather in dreams is very much connected to our emotions in real life.

Ever wonder why you are haunted by pizza and ice cream in your dreams when you are trying to lose weight? Whenever you quit something like drinking or smoking or even just cookies, you are going to dream about it. That is, if you diet or cut out sugar, your dreams are likely to feature a delectable buffet of treats. People who quit smoking tend to have dreams about smoking for the first couple of years afterward stopping the harmful habit and some are visited infrequently by such dreams even 30 years later.

There is a whole host of ways in which pharmaceuticals can influence our dreams. A lot of prescription meds affect REM and can really make your dreams crazy. Nicorette, for example, tends to give people intensely vivid dreams. Drugs can also affect dream recall. As depression render one less likely to remember dreams, anti-depressants can counteract that effect. Vitamin B6 also helps people remember their dreams more vividly and easily.

Hodgepodge of Understanding

As human beings we have a natural desire to understand the world and our place in it. In different ways, it is a desire that has fueled the development of science, philosophy, and theology across time. But what exactly is understanding? What are the different forms it takes, and how do we acquire it? When it comes to understanding another person, for example, it is necessary to have lived through similar experiences? Is it enough to be able to predict, perhaps on the basis of well-confirmed theory how that person will behave? In what way do the sciences provide an understanding of the world, and how does that differ from the sort of understanding we acquire from literature, philosophy, or the study of history? Are there types of understanding that these other pursuits provide that are somehow inaccessible to the sciences?

Despite the obvious importance of these questions for grasping how the mind makes sense of the world, until recently they have not been a focus of scholarly attention. Among philosophers, one might have expected understanding to be a primary concern of both epistemologists and philosophers of science, but this has not been the case. Thus for the most part epistemologists have been concerned not with what it takes to understand the world but rather with what it takes to acquire knowledge of quite commonplace facts; facts such as "that Jones owns a Ford" or "that the bank will be open on Saturday." This is not particularly surprising, because contemporary epistemology largely developed in response to the skeptical challenges of Descartes and Hume, which seemed to threaten all of our knowledge of the world, even the most basic. But in responding to these challenges "higher" epistemic goods such as understanding were largely lost from view.

In the philosophy of science, the connection between explanation and understanding was also lost for many years, as relatively formal definitions of explanation became the focus of attention, with understanding taken to be a merely psychological outcome of explanatory inquiry. Although, many philosophers of science gradually came to find the separation between explanation and understanding unnatural, it was not clear how to remedy the problem.

Over the last several years, important work has been done on recovering the idea of understanding, particularly in epistemology and the philosophy of science, and a parallel emergence has occurred in psychology. For instance, cognitive and developmental psychologists have documented the mental models and intuitive theories of children and adults for various domains, researchers in cognitive psychology have considered how people understand passages of text and figures, and social psychologists have studied how we understand others and ourselves. Broadly, several proposals have been made about how best to characterize the factors that underlie the concepts and causal beliefs that seem crucial to human understanding, including the processes of learning by which such beliefs inform judgments and behavior.

Despite these avenues of important research, psychologists have yet to properly integrate this work into something like a unified account, or to directly tackle the question, "What is understanding?" Even as philosophers have recently begun to examine these issues more closely, a number of big questions have barely been explored at all. For example, in what ways does the understanding provided by the sciences differ from the understanding provided by other areas such as philosophy or mathematics or history? If different types of inquiry provide different forms of understanding, how might they be combined to produce an integrated understanding of the world? Finally, how can recent work on understanding in philosophy and psychology can be relevant to theology?

In short, in spite of the recent attention to understanding, just tentative progress has been made on clarifying the nature of understanding in the sciences and we are still largely in the dark about the distinctive kinds of understanding provided by other forms of inquiry.


It’s All Still in There

We are all destined to do something great. For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn. We are full of incredible potential. When God created us, He deposited seeds of greatness inside of us. He gave us our own dreams and desires. We each one have something to offer that no one else has. But too often, we allow adversities, disappointments and setbacks to push these things down, until one day; we find that we are not pressing forward anymore. We are not stretching; we do not believe we are capable of rising any higher.

When adversity comes, it’s easy to think, “Why is this happening to me?” The answer is because the enemy knows what is on the inside of you. He is going to do everything he can to keep that seed from taking root. But, he will only be successful if you let him. He cannot stop you unless you quit. During the difficult times, remember that the gifts and callings God has placed within us are still there. Don’t become stagnate in pursuing your dreams. It is time to get your fire back! It is time to press forward. It is time to dig deep inside and take hold of the marvelous destiny God has prepared for us!

Change Beliefs and You Will Change Results

Sometimes, we are enthusiastic and on fire for our future. Unfortunately, we don’t keep the mental doors locked and something negative slips in, and we will stop pursuing our dream. All failure begins this way. People may have high hopes, but when their perceived circumstances suggest a lesser outcome is more likely; perhaps via an unexpected obstacle, this perceived discrepancy becomes the initial seed of failure. Being unaware of how this process destroys the dreams of countless people, they fall victim to its seduction. Take a look at what happens and how this process works.

We all have two parts in our thinking: One is our dream or goal, and the second is the belief that it might not ever happen. This is where most people start out. Now, something begins to spark or inspire a person to take action on their dream. Nevertheless, not having a full understanding of the Laws of Success, they are actually moving in the direction of their dream with a great deal of ignorance. Ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as a person stays open to what one must learn along the way. The problem is many individuals are not open to growth and change.

Now the subconscious manifests an obstacle to keep them from experiencing anything new. This new challenge is perceived as a point of failure. It is at this point in a person’s journey where moving forward becomes too painful or fearful, and a person usually chooses to stay safe. This is also the point where moving forward would allow a person to see the bigger win they are hoping for.

Our beliefs control our perception of everything in our world, which in turn creates our reality. If we want to change our reality, we must use new information to change our beliefs and perception. Until we see things differently, we will continue to makes choices that keep us where we are; eventually, we will give up on our dreams. In other words, our experiences reflect our belief system. If there is anything in our life we don’t want to experience all we need to do to change it is to change the belief that caused it in the first place.

In theory, it is really simple… but in practice, many of us find it difficult because we really don’t understand all beliefs are nothing but illusions. These illusions are so strong we tend to think that illusions are real when actually they are not. The power of belief is astounding. Study its mysteries for yourself and see what changes you truly do have the power to make.

Language and the Reconstruction of Reality

The task of education is to make children to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept society’s codes and rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to accept “tree” and not “dog” as the agreed sign for pointing to the object. We have no difficulty in understanding that the word “tree” is a matter of convention. What is much less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned. The child has to be taught not only what words are to stand for what things, but also the way in which his culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries within our daily experience. The scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake. Grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions. How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the question, “What happens to my fist [noun-object] when I open my hand?” The object miraculously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing. In English, the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished.

Besides language, the child has to accept many other forms of code. For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles–father, teacher, worker, artist, “regular guy,” gentleman, sportsman, and so forth. To the extent that we identify ourselves with these stereotypes and the rules of behavior associated with them, we ourselves feel that we are someone because our fellows have less difficulty in accepting us, that is, in identifying us and feeling that we are “under control.” A meeting of two strangers at a party is always somewhat embarrassing when the host has not identified their roles in introducing them, for neither knows what rules of conversation and action should be observed. Once again, it is easy to see the conventional character of roles. For a man who is a father may also be a doctor and an artist, as well as an employee and a brother. It is obvious that even the sum total of these role labels will be far from supplying an adequate description of the man himself, even though it may place him in certain general classifications. However, the conventions which govern human identity are more subtle and much less obvious than these. We learn, very thoroughly though far less explicitly, to identify ourselves with an equally conventional view of “myself.” For the conventional “self” or “person” is composed mainly of a history consisting of selected memories, and beginning from the moment of parturition. According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible but what I was is fixed and final. It is the firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!

It is important to recognize that the memories and past events which make up a man’s historical identity are no more than a selection. From the actual infinitude of events and experiences some have been picked out–abstracted–as significant and this significance has of course been determined by conventional standards. The very nature of conventional knowledge is that it is a system of abstractions. It consists of signs and symbols in which things and events are reduced to their general outlines. The English words “man,” “fish,” “star,” “flower,” “run,” “grow,” all denote classes of objects or events which may be recognized as members of classes of objects or events which may be recognized as members of their class by very simple attributes, abstracted from the total complexity of the things themselves.

Abstraction is thus almost a necessity for communication, since it enables us to represent our experiences with simple and rapidly made “grasps” of the mind. When we say that we can think only of one thing at a time, this is like saying that the Pacific Ocean cannot be swallowed at a gulp. It has to be taken in a cup, and downed bit by bit. Abstractions and conventional signs are like the cup; they reduce experience to units simple enough to be comprehended one at a time. In a similar way, curves are measured by reducing them to a sequence of tiny straight lines, or by thinking of them in terms of the squares which they cross when plotted on graph paper. Other examples of the same process are the newspaper photograph and the transmission of television. In the former, a natural scene is reproduced in terms of light and heavy dots arranged in a screen or grid-like pattern so as to give the general impression of a black-and-white photograph when seen without a magnifying glass. Much as it may look like the original scene, it is only a reconstruction of the scene in terms of dots, somewhat as our conventional words and thoughts are reconstructions of experience in terms of abstract signs. Even more like the thought process, the television camera transmits a natural scene in terms of a linear series of impulses which may be passed along a wire.

Thus communication by conventional signs of this type gives us an abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once–a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms. The perfect description of a small particle of dust by these means would take everlasting time, since one would have to account for every point in its volume.

The linear, one-at-a-time character of speech and thought is particularly noticeable in all languages using alphabets, representing experience in long strings of letters. It is not easy to say why we must speak with others and think with ourselves by this one-at-a-time method. Life itself does not proceed in this cumbersome, linear fashion, and our own organisms proceed in this cumbersome, linear fashion, and our own organisms could hardly live for a moment if they had to control themselves by taking thought of every breath, every beat of the heart, and every neural impulse. If we are to find some explanation for this characteristic of thought, the sense of sight offers suggestive analogy. We have two types of vision: Central and peripheral, not unlike the spotlight and the floodlight. Central vision is used for accurate work like reading, in which our eyes are focused on one small area after another like spotlights. Peripheral vision is less conscious, less bright than the intense ray of the spotlight. We use it for seeing at night, and for taking subconscious notice of objects and movements not in the direct line of central vision. Unlike the spotlight, it can take in very many things at a time.

There is, then, an analogy and perhaps more than mere analogy between central vision and conscious, one-at-a-time thinking, and between peripheral vision and the rather mysterious process which enables us to regulate the incredible complexity of our bodies without thinking at all. It should be noted, further, that we call our body complex as a result of trying to understand them in terms of linear thought, of words and concepts. The complexity is not so much in our body as in the task of trying to understand them by this means of thinking. It is like trying to make out the features of a large room with no other light than a single bright ray. It is as complicated as trying to drink water with a fork instead of a cup. In this respect, the Chinese written language has a slight advantage over English, and is perhaps symptomatic of a different way of thinking. It is still linear, still a series of abstractions taken in one at a time. But its written signs are a little closer to life than spelled words because they are essentially pictures, and, as a Chinese proverb puts it, “One showing is worth a hundred sayings.” Compare, for example, the ease of showing someone how to tie a complex knot with the difficulty of telling one how to do it in words alone.

The general tendency of the Western mind is to feel that we do not really understand what we cannot represent, what we cannot communicate; by linear signs–by thinking. We are like the “wallflower” who cannot learn a dance unless someone draws him a diagram of the steps, who cannot “get it by the feel.” For some reason, we do not trust and do not fully use the “peripheral vision” of our minds. We learn music, for example, by restricting the whole range of tone and rhythm to a notation of fixed tonal and rhythmic intervals–a notation which is incapable of representing Oriental music. But the Oriental musician has a rough notation which he uses only as a reminder of a melody. He learns music, not by reading notes, but by listening to the performance of a teacher, getting the “feel” of it, and copying teacher, and this enables him to acquire rhythmic and tonal sophistications matched only by those Western jazz artists who use the same approach.

It is not to suggest that Westerners simply do not use the “peripheral mind.” Being human, we use it all the time, and every artist, every workman, every athlete calls into play some special development of its powers. But it is not academically and philosophically respectable. We have hardly begun to realize its possibilities, and it seldom, if ever, occurs to us that one of its most important uses is for that “knowledge of reality,” which we try to attain by the cumbersome calculations of theology, metaphysics, and logical inference.

Complete View of Female Beauty & Attractiveness

Our face allows us to convey our every thought and feeling with those around us in a nearly instantaneous manner. Without our face, we would be stuck in an emotionless and depressing self-existence devoid of a primary vehicle of communication. As social beings, it is in our very nature to share our expressions with the outside world. It is likewise in our nature to subconsciously judge each face, assigning certain traits to particular facial characteristics. One of the most important characteristics that we judge is beauty. Interestingly, there is an unusually consistent agreement of what is considered beautiful amongst different cultures, but only when we are referring to the face rather than the body.

Beauty is an arbitrary and abstract concept that is seemingly difficult, if not impossible to define. Considering the vast diversity in this world and the countless cultures it contains, one would expect that surely there must be different culturally dependent standards of beauty. However, research suggests that this is only partially correct.

Research examining the physical attractiveness of the female body often uses the waist-to-hip ratio as a quantifiable measure. Indeed, studies have found that males from most cultures and across history strongly prefer female figures with a low waist-to-hip ratio. In the developed world, healthy females have higher levels of estrogen that cause more fat to be deposited on the buttocks and hips rather than on the waist, leading to a low waist-to-hip ratio. Thus, the waist-to-hip ratio is an indicator of health status and fertility, and male preference for low waist-to-hip ratio females is considered an excellent example of male assessment of mate quality.

Despite the overall preference of men for women with a low waist-to-hip ratio, variations do exist, thereby casting doubt on the theory that this may be a universal ideal. Another measure of body habitus is the body mass index, which is a heuristic proxy for human body fat. Different cultures and populations prefer females of different body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio due to different sociocultural influences. Undeniably, the effect of Westernization may be contributing to a more universal standard of beauty, but this is not due to our innate evolutionary preferences. Regardless of these influences, a study comparing female physical attractiveness between Japanese and British participants found that Japanese men preferred images of woman with significantly lower body mass index than Britons and likewise were more reliant on body shape when judging physical attractiveness.

However, the flaw with these studies in general is that every culture tested so far has been exposed to the potentially confounding influence of Western media. A landmark study by Yu and Shepard assessed the waist-to-hip ratio preferences of a culturally isolated population of Matsigenka indigenous people in Peru, who are located in an extensive nature park where access is restricted solely to scientific and official visitors and the vast majority of natives have never left the premises. Their results showed that the waist-to-hip ratio preferences of males of this tribe differed strikingly from those of the United States control population as well as from other world cultures, with the over-weight female ranking highest in the factors of attractiveness, healthiness, and preferred spouse.

These were critical findings as they differed strikingly from the preferences of males in other cultures. This difference may be due to the fact that in traditional societies, physical features may play a lesser role because mate choice is limited by kinship rules, and potential mates have access to direct information about mate quality, such as age and history of illness. As a result, they do not rely primarily on information inferred from physical appearance. In contrast, in industrialized societies, daily exposure to strangers from an early age may increase the importance of using physical features to assess potential mates based on these factors.

It seems reasonable to question whether these relative cultural norms likewise influence our perception of facial beauty. Counter intuitively, the answer is no. The quest to find suitable definition of facial beauty dates back to antiquity, when the ancient Greeks believed that beauty appeared when the ratio of many different facial features to each other approached the value 1:1.618, the so called golden ratio. However, things are not so simple, as further research has shown that facial beauty is more a combination of symmetry and an ideal harmony of the facial features with each other. Most importantly, as humans we have an innate mechanism for detecting this elusive concept of beauty.

Symmetry is an important aspect of facial beauty and is tied to evolutionary fitness, where left-right bilateral symmetry describes health and high genetic quality, and deviations from it may indicate poor qualities and therefore form a basis for rejection of a potential mate. There are several examples that seem to reinforce this concept. For instance, supermodels, arguably considered the most attractive members of Western society, have the least degree of facial asymmetry when compared to the general population. Facial asymmetry exists along a gradient in our population and it is clear that we have evolved to tolerate some degree of this asymmetry.

Interestingly, studies have shown that averaging a random group of faces results in a synthetic face more attractive than any of the original faces. The faces used in these analyses consisted of thirty-two completely random faces from a pool of different cultures, yet observers always ranked the composite face as being the most attractive. Paradoxically, this suggests that the ideal harmony of the facial features that we consider to be beautiful is actually as close to average as possible. Naturally, such statements have drawn criticism from many individuals who refuse to believe that beauty may in any way related to averageness.

It is critical to note that the computational average of facial features that is considered attractive in this case is completely distinct from what culture commonly refers to as an average face, which naturally has a negative connotation and is not considered beautiful. There are certainly unique and interesting features that may add to the perceived attractiveness of an individual’s face, but it is important to realize that they must be associated with an average face and must be harmonious with the other facial features.

There have been arguments that beauty is a cultural phenomenon engrained in us repeatedly throughout our youth, resulting in a biased preference such as that of male for females with a low waist-to-hip ratio. However, there are many examples that disprove this theory. Eleven separate meta-analyses have revealed very high agreement in facial-attractiveness ratings by raters both within their own culture, and across other cultures. In fact, the effect sizes were more than double the size necessary to be considered large and thereby strongly suggest a universal standard by which facial attractiveness is judged. In order to negate the possible influence of Western media, a study examining preferences for facial symmetry between British individuals and the Hazda, a hunter-gatherer society of Tanzania, likewise found that facial symmetry was more attractive than asymmetry across both cultures. These findings further question the assumption that ratings of facial attractiveness and ideals of facial beauty are culturally unique and are consistent with the fact that young infants prefer to look at faces that adults likewise consider to be attractive.

It is important to realize that there are exogenous factors that augment attractiveness and beauty as it pertains to mate selection, which is precisely why it is such an elusive concept to define. Dutton argues that based on Darwinian aesthetics, individuals consciously select mates who have certain characteristics, and that such characteristic in fact may make the person more attractive and beautiful to them. Dutton further states that it is human personality that adds another dimension of beauty, with traits such as a delightful sense of humor and generosity being attractive. Although it is still evolutionarily based on finding a healthy mate who is able to provide care, it is this rational intention combined with physical appearance that forms a complete view of beauty and attractiveness.

Conclusion: Beauty is an elusive concept that is envied and sought by many yet is extremely difficult to define. Although the beauty of the body has an evolutionary basis, the concept of the ideal body is a cultural construct that has been influenced and continues to be influenced by culture and media. Conversely, facial beauty is a biologically ingrained concept based on symmetry and an ideal coalescence of those facial features with each other that transcend barriers of culture, media, and time. Ultimately, concepts of beauty and attractiveness are evolutionarily based, but cannot be looked at narrowly as based solely on appearance as they are augmented by exogenous factors.

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