Ep 77: Imagining Beauty- The Key to Aging Gracefully
In my research paper “On Thoughts Emotions Facial Expressions and Aging” I proposed the pathways by which our mental and emotional world directly shapes our aging faces. The last few podcasts have focused on how the brain influences our facial aesthetics. As well as how our own psychological traits influence how we perceive aesthetics in others. Following on, today’s podcast goes into the realm of our imagination, at the heart of it is my belief that beauty is imagined, giving us some insight on how to age beautifully.
This seems like a heavy topic, but I assure you that my intention is to convince you that there is another perspective to beauty and aging, and how to age beautifully. Other than what may be the common belief – whatever that is in whatever age. This statement itself shows how fleeting these trends are, but that is a subject for another day.
Another perspective to beauty and aging
Let’s start with what we can readily identify with. Remember when you were a child, what your favorite toy was? Or your dearest childhood memory? When I prompt you to recall, what comes to mind? Well, it would have been an image. Was it in our mind’s eye? Could have been from our heart. The very exercise of recalling a memory is an act that engages our mental and emotional faculties simultaneously. I am just curious if we were to observe for our facial expressions while doing so. In essence, I do expect that would correlate to the emotions we felt while remembering.
Imagination as a therapeutic outlet
Dance again♬ Careless Whisper – George Michael
I hope that got your attention. Right now we turn our focus to how that can help us qualify the role of imagination as a therapeutic outlet. To illustrate, art therapy is a growing field with numerous evidence based benefits. In addition, as we increasingly look to psychological wellness as a good foundation in how to age beautifully, it is helpful to unravel various science-backed methods to better regulate our emotional world.
Closely studied alongside art therapy is the influence of imagination on psychological states. We have covered in earlier podcasts how philosophers demonstrate that beauty and the perception of aesthetics closely links to thought and emotion. Today, I want to share how imagination directly influences neurological pathways – potentially, the skin. As well as eventually, how I feel we can harness this to allow us to experience beauty more intensely.
In particular, notice I used the word intense to describe the experience of beauty. Because, I truly believe it is an emotion and not a standard. If you are listening still, I wonder if you have already changed your mind about beauty? If so, that may just be a little anecdote that serves to show that even in the absence of any true “scientific evidence” (which I have yet to present), our perceptions of beauty are truly as emotional and personal as the memories we recall.
Imagining Beauty – our consciousness defines our reality
“Imagination, also called mental imagery or mental practice, is a conscious simulation of a stimulus or an event that can impact perception, cognition, and emotion” (Holmes and Mathews, 2005; Kosslyn et al, 2006).
Mindfulness therapy is a growing area within the medical research field. Markedly, it has practical applications in cognitive behavioural therapy, psychiatry and neuroscience. For example, research shows that it reduces stress levels and promotes better control of emotions, promoting psychological wellness.
However, the benefits of imagination therapy are not as widely known. Although, there has already been good research publications on this topic.
Imagination induces neural plasticity
Neural plasticity is the phenomenon whereby we can observe that the network of the brain’s nerves constantly grows. Furthermore, it is reorganized according to various dynamic stimuli. This is a highly beneficial process whereby the brain rewires, allowing it to adapt to new challenges. Moreover, allowing it to function more efficiently than before. To illustrate, an interesting fact here is that researchers (Pascual-Leone et al., 2005) have found that imagination therapy activates the parts of our brain responsible for our real world perception. Therefore, so in that sense, our imaginations do influence our reality.
Beauty is imagined
Imagining beauty♬ original sound – Dr. Teo Wan Lin
The most beautiful things in the world are things we find in our imagination. Think about this for a while… do you agree? Well, we actually don’t need any research to tell us if this is true or not. By all means, we can look inside, and discover if indeed it is true for us. Most often, we can associate our “beauty standards” with a person or an image that we may not even be personally acquainted with. Equally important, there is a reason why we have such an attachment to this ideal. At its core in particular, it is an internal emotion driven by a memory. Truth is, sports psychology already tells us that imagination has a specific purpose in enhancing performance (Kosslyn et al., 2001; Zatorre and Halpern, 2005), in the real world – a fact already proven in athletes (Shepard and Metzler, 1971) who undergo such therapy.
On this basis, I feel that more research can be done on how imagination can be used as a key tool to regulate emotions (Holmes and Matthews, 2010). Above all, this has tremendous implications on the treatment of body dysmorphophobia, for example. As a case in point, body dysmorphophobia quite literally presents as a bona fide affliction of the imagination. In effect, sufferers imagine defects and disfigurements on themselves which are not consistent with reality.
Beauty – an imaginary space outside reality
Essentially, to the extent that one believes something to be true, that becomes a reality. Unfortunately, as dermatologists we do see that working pathologically in the realm of psychodermatology. For example, delusional parasitosis, neurotic excoriations-these are specific psychiatric conditions that subsequently lead to a true skin condition.
Are cosmetic treatments the answer to how to age beautifully?
Our subconscious mind is constantly assailed by media messaging- the subject of beauty standards seem especially effective for marketing. To illustrate, as a dermatologist practising cosmetic dermatology, I wonder often if our stance on aesthetic enhancements will affect the psychological wellbeing of an aging population in the long term. “Natural-looking”, “tweakments”, “become the best version of yourself”, “everyone wants to look good”, we use these to justify our cosmetic dermatology interventions.
Sure, do whatever makes you happy, as long as it makes you happy. However, as medical doctors first, we may find ourselves in an uncomfortable place when our patients find that there is never enough. Worse still, to discover if our 2,3 decades cosmetic dermatology practice has contributed to this. In addition, patient dissatisfaction is a phenomenon readily associated with aesthetic practices and research has correlated this with personality traits/psychiatric comorbidities.
As a followup to my initial paper, I think that exploring the realm of imagination therapy as a tool to regulate emotions may be a viable method of how to age beautifully. Simultaneously, this can reduce overall personal dissatisfaction. This is a risk factor for various psychiatric disorders – likely to become more prevalent in an aging population.
Cogito, Ergo Sum
“When effective, imagination holds a unique advantage as an emotion regulation tool because it is changeable, internally directed, and dissociated from immediate sensory input (Taylor et al., 1998).”
In light of knowing now that our aging faces are indeed influenced by our dominant facial expressions, which in turn are affected by our emotions, most often related to the thoughts we conjure… Perhaps, we can apply imagination therapy as a viable means of how to age beautifully, with or without aesthetic interventions, as a means of improving patient satisfaction.
Teo W. L. (2021). On thoughts, emotions, facial expressions, and aging. International journal of dermatology, 60(5), e200–e202. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijd.15443
Holmes, E. A., & Mathews, A. (2005). Mental Imagery and Emotion: A Special Relationship? Emotion, 5(4), 489–497. https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-35184.108.40.2069
Kosslyn, Stephen & Thompson, William & Ganis, Giorgio. (2006). The Case for Mental Imagery. The Case for Mental Imagery.. 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195179088.001.0001.
Pascual-Leone, A., Amedi, A., Fregni, F., & Merabet, L. B. (2005). The plastic human brain cortex. Annual review of neuroscience, 28, 377–401. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216
Kosslyn, S., Ganis, G. & Thompson, W. Neural foundations of imagery. Nat Rev Neurosci 2, 635–642 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35090055
Zatorre, R. J., & Halpern, A. R. (2005). Mental concerts: musical imagery and auditory cortex. Neuron, 47(1), 9–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2005.06.013
Holmes, E. A., & Mathews, A. (2010). Mental imagery in emotion and emotional disorders. Clinical psychology review, 30(3), 349–362. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.01.001
Taylor, S. E., Pham, L. B., Rivkin, I. D., & Armor, D. A. (1998). Harnessing the imagination. Mental simulation, self-regulation, and coping. The American psychologist, 53(4), 429–439. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066x.53.4.429