Ep 61: The Lotus, Imperfections and the Science Behind Flawed Beauty
This is part of the beauty podcast series on neuroaesthetics based on Dr. Teo Wan Lin’s white paper on the brain-skin connection “On thoughts, emotions, facial expressions and aging” published in the Feb 2021 issue of the International Journal of Dermatology¹.
This podcast episode takes us quite literally behind the scenes of beauty— where Dr Teo dissects the evidence behind the science of perception and neurocircuitry pathways that account for the human experience of beauty. This first anniversary podcast culminates in an in-depth exposition that aims to bridge the gap between societal beauty standards, which are dictated by our physical senses and universal beauty which is experienced as an emotion. The inherent risk factors for psychopathology are explored in the context of “falling short” of societal beauty standards, the process highlighting the mental health risks of such an approach. For example, preoccupation with self-perceived flaws and an increased risk of depression/anxiety can arise from an inability of the human psyche to deal with unmet expectations.
In this exposition, the realm of artistic appreciation lends itself to a scientific analysis of how perception works in the human brain. The Japanese concept of “wabi sabi”, exemplified in sculptural art, is a further testament to how one can be taught to appreciate beauty in the midst of perceived “imperfections”.
The beauty of the lotus
Drawing an example from the eastern art of ink painting, she shares that the ancient chinese idiom of a lotus being a symbol of moral perfection arising out of imperfect muddy waters is an example of a cultural viewpoint that regards morality and a virtuous character as the highest forms of beauty. This anniversary episode challenges listeners to redefine beauty for themselves, not only as a means to transform their worldview, but also themselves.
Hi guys, this is Dr. Teo Wan Lin of TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre. The host of your favorite beauty podcast, Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty. We’re in the midst of a series on the science behind our perceptions of beauty. That lead to modern-day conceptions of beauty standards. We’ve touched on the neuroscience principles that actually determine our own perception of aesthetics. Today I’m going to use this concept of flawed beauty to illustrate why beauty standards actually do not and should not exist.
Beauty in Eastern Art
In Eastern Art, for example, in Chinese ink painting, there is a concept we know as “xia ci”. This refers to imperfections created by organic movements of the paintbrush when dipped in ink. Practitioners of this art form recognize that creating these organic imperfections with a single stroke is actually part of what distinguishes it as a masterpiece vs an amateur art piece. In addition, the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi is well known. It is a concept seen in pottery art and in sculpture. This concept proves that beauty as an experience can inherently be physically flawed. It can even be identified as flawed by the viewer, and yet experienced as pleasurable.
The key here is definitely the connection between our senses and our brain processing. Which eventually dictates our valuation of what we are seeing. In previous episodes, we’ve touched on the impact of evolutionary psychology. This tells us that certain physical traits that we link to attractiveness may be inherent in the natural selection process. There is also an equally strong argument that values of altruism and kindness are seen as attractive to almost everyone. To illustrate, this is in terms of what psychologists analyze in human behavior. This is independent of the physical aspect of beauty.
We’ve covered the neuroaesthetic pathway, which dictates how our brain processes these visual stimuli. Eventually, causing us to be able to value the subject in question. This topic of artistic valuation is very important and relevant to our discussion. Art is a universal subject independent of cultural or ethnic peculiarities. We all can derive pleasure from many forms of art, performances, practices, from viewing artworks. Scientists have discovered pleasure derived from appreciating the arts is actually much more than a transient emotion or sensation. In fact, it is one with significant cognitive psychosocial benefits directly related to human functioning and a good state of overall wellness and health.
This leads us to deduce that we can delve into the realm of artistic appreciation and evaluation in order to investigate the impact and the importance of perceiving beauty for our psychosocial wellbeing. The key cognitive pathways involved actually show that it is much more than a purely emotional reaction. This means that we can apply the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy. For example, intervening in these processes to enhance appreciation of beauty and maximize the psychosocial benefits of these aesthetic experiences.
Imperfections in beauty
The focus of my beauty podcast today is to bridge the gap between our concept of beauty and beauty standards. This is really what we see with our eyes as a result of our physical senses. Especially when it starts to tell us that there are imperfections. I feel this is important because many of our personal frustrations originate from our inability to accept imperfections and flaws. Whether in terms of situations or human relationships where we are communicating with other individuals, or our own self perception.
I wonder if the idea of striving for perfection is the source of our daily motivation in life. For example, to want to get better at something is a positive emotion that drives us. This should be driven by an ideal of perfection. Practicing in the field of dermatology, I feel that a lot of psychopathology originates from a persistent sense of frustration. We can directly link this to the perception of what is flawed and imperfect. Whether or not it’s something inherent of an individual or what they perceive in other people or in situations.
Striving for perfection
It is a risk factor for psychopathology because it gives rise to this mental thought process. This starts from frustration in perceiving a flaw or imperfection. Then, a sense of hopelessness, which is a result of a mix-match of expectations. All of these can cause the individual to obsess over certain thoughts that eventually become part of the brain’s neurocircuitry. These feelings of frustration and hopelessness are key diagnostic features in an individual who suffers from clinical depression or anxiety.
As the host of a beauty podcast, I feel that in the health and beauty industry, we are always pursuing the betterment of our skin health. This is as our skin often translates into how others perceive us. There is a very delicate line here that we can draw. For example, the work of a dermatologist actually focuses on skin health. To be accurate, when your skin is healthy, your skin looks good. That has nothing to do with any unhealthy mental beliefs of changing your physical features. Instead, it is part of this pursuit of health and wellness.
Pursuing healthy skin
Many of the existing cosmetic dermatology or plastic surgery interventions to correct what is perceived to be flawed by the individual is certainly alright. There is a good understanding that the individual will feel better when they correct this flaw. However, we should emphasize that as not the source of your self esteem. Or, the motivation behind them wanting a procedure should not be directly linked to this tangible goal. This is because regardless of how extensively one utilizes medical interventions to preserve what you deem to be what makes you look good, or what makes others look good, regardless of how genetically ‘blessed’ you are, we are all mortals. So there is a rule that we all will degenerate and degrade. This is a law of nature.
So it doesn’t prepare us for this journey of aging if we are purely associating that with how one appears. In fact, if it leads to an unhealthy disconnect with the emotional process of aging. By tying it so closely to the physical manifestations of it, it could lead us to psychosocial issues from unmet expectations and disappointment. Thich can be part of an unhealthy vicious cycle in one’s mentality.
Our perception of artwork and beauty
My goal starting this beauty podcast has been to share important tips with regards to skin health and cosmeceutical interventions. Also, for the main purpose of educating the public that beauty itself must be tied to health. Rather than any ideal that has to do with your skin color, your size, your shape, or what features you were born with. I feel that from art, we can show people that the process of perceiving beauty must include our emotional and mental states. Our perception of artwork is literally an organic manifestation of our entire being. By organic, I am referring to the lack of structure and yet close semblance to living things. These can be items familiar to the human experience that somehow manages to conjure up these aesthetic experiences.
As we reflect on our personal experience with artwork, may we also learn to apply the same principles to look at ourselves and perhaps others. The application of this concept of beauty standards to human anatomy is rather troubling to me as a dermatologist. This realm of aesthetic medicine, which has arisen out of specific subspecialties in dermatology and plastic surgery, is increasingly practiced by non specialists who consider themselves aesthetic practitioners. Internationally, there is no formal health accreditation board that considers a separate medical specialty. It is important for the public to understand this as what the converse would lead us to is blurring the line between the duty of a physician and a consumerist approach to beauty. Especially when touted by a healthcare professional.
Art appreciation & physical perfection
I personally feel that if we look at the evolution of art and the appreciation of art, we realize that achieving physical perfection is and should not be our end goal. An entire copy or imitation of a masterpiece does not equate to success. Hopefully, we can apply the same idea to physical features. Learning that striving for complete symmetry or trying to match the standard of certain physical features is equally tricky. Because, the very essence of beauty and the perception hardwired in human beings -something I would call the connection with the brain – has less to do with form and more to do with distinctiveness.
Even when we consider the general broad principles when it comes to artistic form, there is a persistent characteristic relating to organic movement. Science can actually explain our perception of these organic lines and manifestations via a mathematical equation. This is the mental broad equation that explains many things we find in nature via the concept of fractals. It helps us perceive a subject as natural versus artificial manifestation.
Imperfections give rise to perfection
This is also well tied in with the concept of wabi sabi in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The hand formed imperfections in a sculpture contribute to the inherent beauty of the object. The concept of beauty and imperfection is seen in Chinese ink painting and culture. It is ideally told in the story of how a lotus with its perfect bloom grows out of mud. Achieving perfection in the midst of imperfection.
It is the perfect symbol of how one can find beauty and purity in an imperfect world. Even in an imperfect bloom as we often find in nature, the broken brushstrokes achieved with the organic movement of a human hand wielding a brush, the effect of the brush on rice paper and the flow of ink with water results in the brokenness of each stroke that is overall valued as an aesthetic experience. It tells a story of how when things flow, as they do in nature – which can be considered physically imperfect depending on how you define imperfection – becomes perfect.
Changing our stance on imperfections
Overall, I feel the lesson here is that the human reaction to imperfection is actually something we can change in a world where nothing is truly within our control. In sculptural arts, the human touch is distinct with fingerprints, marks on objects created by the human hand. These are impossible to replicate with any machine.
As we celebrate the first anniversary of our beauty podcast Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty, I wish to take this time to thank my listeners as well as my sponsors for your kind support the past year. If you have been following us on our journey so far, I hope that you enjoy our discussions on the subject of beauty. In particular, offering a new perspective via the neuroaesthetic pathway that we have been discussing.
The key to growth in any area is fuelled by mankind‘s quest for knowledge and betterment. In this beauty podcast episode, I’ve spoken about how our desire to achieve better things for ourselves must balance with an evaluation of our emotional response to things that we see and hear. If there’s something you hear that can soothe your psyche in any way that’s certainly helpful. However, it is better still if we are able to rationalize and take control of our emotional and cognitive responses to things that we are exposed to.
If you are able to back it up with scientific understanding and methodology, then our pursuit of perfection can be a fruitful and safe journey. Rather than an endless, vicious cycle. Finally, I hope at the end of this beauty podcast episode, we can all take a moment to self-reflect on how we truly want to define beauty for ourselves. We may find ourselves pleasantly surprised at how this can literally transform your whole world.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast. Remember to follow me @DrTeoWanLin on Instagram for our latest podcast updates.
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- Teo WL. On thoughts, emotions, facial expressions, and aging. Int J Dermatol. 2021 May;60(5):e200-e202. doi: 10.1111/ijd.15443. Epub 2021 Feb 9. PMID: 33559158. [PubMed]