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September 06, 2004

Innate sense of beauty

The Times (London) today has a news report on some forthcoming research findings on new-born babies' perception of beauty. Here's the report from the Times Online service:

Babies can spot pretty face right from birth
By Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent

BEAUTY is not in the eye of the beholder: British scientists have discovered that human infants are born with an innate concept of what makes an attractive face.

Research at Exeter University has found that newborn babies show a marked preference for people with features that are conventionally judged as handsome by adults.

The findings suggest that ideals of facial beauty are not determined by culture alone, but also rely on universal standards that have been hard-wired, or imprinted, in our genes.

“Attractiveness is not simply in the eye of the beholder, it is in the brains of newborn infants, right from the moment of birth,” said Alan Slater, a developmental psychologist who led the study. “This view contradicts views arguing that the newborn infant enters the world as a tabula rasa — a blank slate on which experience will write.”

Dr Slater will present the results this week at the British Assocation Festival of Science at Exeter University.

Though infants cannot tell scientists that they prefer this face or that, a large volume of research has shown that their attention is much more easily captured by images they find pleasing or interesting.

In the new study, Dr Slater’s team used this effect to test whether newborns with little or no experience of the world shared their elders’ assumptions about facial beauty. The researchers took hundreds of pictures of female members of the public, and asked adult volunteers to rate their attractiveness on a scale of one to five.

Dr Slater then paired particularly beautiful faces, with an average score of close to five, with particularly unattractive ones scoring close to one. Care was taken to match qualities such as hair colour and length that might otherwise interfere with the experiment. Almost 100 newborn babies, with an average age of two days, were then shown these paired images.

About 80per cent of the time the babies looked exclusively or mainly at the face judged “prettier”. The effect was also seen when the experiment was repeated with male faces and faces from many different ethnic groups.

Dr Slater said: “A lot of it is hard-wired, and you can’t get away from that hard-wiring.”

There are two probable evolutionary explanations for the phenomenon. First, facial symmetry — which is strongly linked to beauty across cultures — may be an “honest” signal of good genes, good health and an absence of parasitic diseases.

We may be primed to recognise this as a way of selecting sexual partners with the best breeding prospects. Second, the preference could be a by-product of an evolved mental capacity to recognise faces from birth. It is thought that babies fit faces to some sort of average facial template.

The print version of the article goes on to mention similar findings in relation to music: babies 'are partial to the melodic strains of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but cannot stand the same piece when it is played backwards'.

Maybe someone should try them on Schoenberg!

Posted by David B at 06:42 AM