Intelligent Beauty: The Science of Beauty

Intelligent Beauty - see with your heart first
Beauty is — learning to see with your heart first and then your eyes.
An Invention of the Mind Intelligent Beauty

Beauty is a topic of fascination throughout millennia. Gustav Fechner, the pioneer of modern psychology proposed a set of metrics which could be used to statistically define the experience of beauty. Known as psychophysics, he examined the relationship between the material and the mental world, known as “die geistige Welt” in German, which translates literally to the spiritual universe. In contemporary models involving the psychology of beauty, it is primarily regarded as an undefined aesthetic response. There have been diverse interpretations of beauty as an experience, including an element of cognition, hence the term “intelligent beauty” which one may make reference to.

Philosophers have hypothesised that beauty must possess an inherent element of surprise. In addition, it has also been ascribed to pleasure as a visceral sensation. Psychologists have debated that beauty itself innately must be universal, which may explain our preference for familiar objects. Interestingly, Immanuel Kant famously proposed that beauty, in contrast to sensuous pleasures, required thought. Is beauty an emotion after all?

In this podcast, Dr. Teo Wan Lin, author of “On Thoughts, Emotions, Facial Expressions and Aging1” a research letter published in the International Journal of Dermatology, shares more about beauty in the context of the brain-skin connection.

Previous Episode Recap
Intelligent Beauty: How to be Beautiful Inside Out 

In the previous podcast, we’ve covered dermatological conditions that literally manifest from the “inside out”. Acne excoriee, delusions of parasitosis as well as stress-related skin aging. If you haven’t been convinced yet about the brain-skin connection, this week’s podcast episode may change your mind (pun intended).

Intelligence, like beauty, is an attractive trait.

Specifically, intelligence is only attractive to those who think about it. Contrary to the judgement of beauty, which we apparently view as an emotional experience/response. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant highlighted the key difference between pleasure and beauty, perceived by the brain – the former does not require thought, the latter involves cognition. Intelligent beauty is a term coined in recent years, likely for marketing the booming aesthetic industry. Does anyone actually know what it means? Well, I think I will attempt to define it here, based on my personal and professional views as a woman and a dermatologist. 

To begin with, intelligent beauty has been perhaps coined to support the marketing efforts of pharmaceutical companies selling the latest aesthetic treatments. For example, how many use the “science of beauty” to justify aesthetic enhancements in the field of medicine. Undeniably, there are broader ethical and philosophical implications here. 

The field of aesthetic medicine

Ethically, doctors can be inappropriately involved in non-health related messaging. It is critical to note that the practice of aesthetic medicine is not recognised as a separate medical specialty in Singapore, US or in the UK. Essentially, it comprises a subset of aesthetic dermatology as well as plastic surgery – dermatology and plastic surgery being the accredited specialisations here. 

Philosophically, the public can be swayed to view their physical appearance as a commodity. Much like purchasing a bag or new clothing. On a societal level, isn’t this pretty harmless though? Therefore, it is important to dissect this argument because as creatures of reason, we can potentially avoid a fallacy — in this case, of the science of beauty.

Aesthetic Beauty – A Fallacy?

Bombastic terms alluding to mathematical equations the golden ratio of beauty, Phi, the Fibonacci sequence, can give appearance of credibility to the “science of beauty”. However, I don’t think beauty is about an aesthetically perfect face. In addition, the emergence of artificial intelligence can allow one to examine emotional responses to the idea of a ‘perfect human’. Robotic perfection is not attractive. Surely, something about life-sized robots living in our homes seems eerie, right? 

Back to Kant, who stated that pleasure must be distinguished from beauty. Studies performed by psychologists1,2 in modern times have backed up the theory that perception of beauty requires thought, as opposed to sensuous pleasures. To illustrate, we can best define it as an experience that results from a harmonious interplay between our mental and emotional/visceral faculties. This forms the premise of the experience of beauty which requires some extent of mental cognition and constitutes the basis of what we call intelligent beauty.

Can we modify our appearance with the power of our belief? The science suggests our perception is dynamic.

My work now in deciphering the brain skin connection is a way of investigating my own responses to beauty. To demonstrate, in the Empirical Studies of The Arts, Nadal and colleagues2  concluded that the meaningfulness of an experience was at the heart of the appreciation of beauty. Importantly, what it means is that if the observer determines an object to be meaningless, we then automatically view it as “not beautiful”. 

Intelligent Beauty is Data Driven

To emphasize, in order to derive meaning, we actually have to reflect and think about the concept. What does the data on the psychology of beauty say? Psychological investigations on the topic have attempted to correlate beauty with statistically measurable feelings. For instance, feeling alive a sense of longing, a sense of surprise, mind wandering, wanting more, and personal meaningfulness. These were all dimensions the researchers associate with the definition of an intensely beautiful experience. Evidently, we must carefully deal with addressing the root of a physical flaw in the context of aesthetic enhancements. Undoubtedly, this discussion excludes medical interventions that have a reconstructive purpose.

Beauty – an Emotion Manipulated
Intelligent Beauty- Dr. Teo Wan Lin's beauty journey
My definition of beauty when I was younger was rather different from what it is today. When I first entered the world of modelling at the age of 19, I had the idea that it was all about glamour and fashion, and of course, the model being at the centre of attention. Not true, because I soon discovered that in the world of magazines, beauty was literally a produced image involving an entire team working tirelessly behind the scenes—the creative director, the makeup artist, the hair stylist, the photographer, the entire team of assistants, and then finally the model who presents the final image of beauty.

As I matured, my insecurities about my appearance actually lessened. Not due to any external factors, but it was really because I realised there was no point in feeling so. Early on as a model, I learnt that there will always be someone more “beautiful”, whose look was more “in- season”.

So this is my heartfelt truth about beauty today and it’s not about the individual. In fact, the more we focus on beauty as an ideal, the further we are from the truth of beauty in life.

Beauty is art—a symbol of its soul, apparent only to those who are willing to perceive it.
The allure of aesthetic enhancements. Do whatever makes you happy? Think about why it makes you happy.

I highlight this as body dysmorphophobia disproportionately affects patients who seek aesthetic treatments. Beyond that, we all perceive “flaws” subjectively. This has nothing to do with skin health. Moreover, we know that perception is dynamic.

In this situation, I wonder if the widespread availability and marketing of this medical aesthetic field promising to offer beauty as a commodity has anything to do with the psychology of these individuals who perhaps are feeling pressured to always look young and being beautiful. For instance, we always talk about ‘survival of the fittest’. It seems ironic that in the middle of a pandemic that has taken the lives of millions across the world that we should be dealing with a concurrent pandemic of mental health issues.

Instead, I feel we might as well adapt this catchphrase to ‘survival of the psychologically fittest’ in today’s modern context. Since, it really seems with the tragic incidents that we witness recently, that one can never feel beautiful, young or perfect enough for the world. 

Summing Up

Today’s podcast episode is my attempt at hopefully adding some diversity to the interpretation of the term ‘science of beauty’, which many currently use as the basis for cosmetic dermatological interventions. At length, we’ve explored how philosophers and psychologists have studied this concept of beauty and it’s not in an aesthetically perfect face. Therefore, to me, my greatest concern is that we may not even be approaching the science of beauty according to the true science. Hence, I feel one has to keep an open mind and gain an appreciation of what we call intelligent beauty.

At the same time, also feel free to entertain alternative ideas about the beauty of the ageing face. As well as about beauty in general – to realise that it is as fleeting as our constantly changing perceptions and emotions. In truth, at the end of the day, beauty may just be an invention of our minds.

What makes you YOU - intelligent beauty
What makes you beautiful is what makes you YOU. 
  1. 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.
  2.  Nadal M, Munar E, Marty G, Cela-Conde CJ. Visual Complexity and Beauty Appreciation: Explaining the Divergence of Results. Empirical Studies of the Arts. 2010;28(2):173-191. doi:10.2190/EM.28.2.d
  3. Brielmann AA, Nuzzo A, Pelli DG. Beauty, the feeling. Acta Psychol (Amst). 2021 Sep;219:103365. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2021.103365. Epub 2021 Jul 8. PMID: 34246875; PMCID: PMC8514293.
  4. Brielmann AA, Pelli DG. Beauty Requires Thought. Curr Biol. 2017 May 22;27(10):1506-1513.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.04.018. Epub 2017 May 11. Erratum in: Curr Biol. 2017 Jun 5;27(11):1706. PMID: 28502660; PMCID: PMC6778408.

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