Ep 60: Divine Beauty.. or not? On the Neuroaesthetic Pathway, Body Dysmorphophobia and Brain Plasticity
Society’s god-like objectification of beauty may inherently be a flawed concept. This weekend’s podcast focuses on Dr. Teo Wan Lin’s research in the field of neuroaesthetics, a sequel to the previous podcast on the role of evolutionary psychology in beauty standards. She posits that the experience of beauty is actually a neuroendocrine process involving our senses and brain processing, rather than one based on a checklist of physical attributes.
Using art as an example of how the human brain processes imagery which is translated into an aesthetic experience, she points out that cognitive neuroscience is relevant to understanding the biological basis of our own perceptions of beauty. Rationalising beauty as a neurosensorial experience readily debunks set “beauty standards”, showing that perception can, in fact, be a conscious choice.
Dr. TWL: Hi guys, Welcome to today’s podcast. I am Dr. Teo Wan Lin, the host of Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty, a beauty podcast. If you remember the last podcast, we discussed the impact of evolutionary psychology on beauty standards. Also we touch on how philosophy actually has a lot to teach us on this topic.
Today I want to delve into the medical aspect of perception. Specifically, the perception of beauty, and also introduce the term neuroaesthetics. It’s a very interesting, fairly new discipline that is evolving. It encompasses both art and cognitive neuroscience.
Chelsea: I’ve honestly never heard of this term before. The last podcast episode we spoke about how individuals end up seeking out relationships with altruistic persons rather than purely good looking individuals. When we do, it is because we think that their good looks somewhat links to their altruistic characteristics. This is because our subconscious mind perceives that there are potential benefits we can reap from having such a relationship with this individual. As I reflected on this, I realized indeed that as one receives kindness from another individual, this actually very easily translates into a positive emotion of goodness. Come to think of it, that definitely affects my perception of the other person. I think many of our listeners can identify with this as well.
Biological basis of aesthetic experiences
Dr. TWL: As soon as one realizes that the converse is also true, then, in terms of our experience with beautiful people who have very ugly behaviors, then I think we can really define and think of beauty as an experience much more than a standard. That brings us to what I was talking about before – neuroaesthetics. It is the study of the physiological processes involved in our brain that are connected to other parts of our body and senses via neuroendocrine pathways. This means that it involves and triggers off a pathway that releases several different chemical mediators. These give us the sensations that contribute to this experience of beauty.
I think neuroaesthetics is best defined by the biological basis of aesthetic experiences. To put it in a layperson’s perspective, it really refers to anything that evokes an emotion of beauty, or a sense of beauty. These experiences can involve assessments of objects present in nature. It can also be in relation to an artifact, or even a response to your environment.
Chelsea: Well, that’s actually really impressive! Because, in a sense, the realm of art and humanities has always been thought of as very subjective. In direct contrast, we’ve always thought anything that is scientific wouldn’t be able to explain how art appeals to the human eyes. So it seems like what you’re talking about here in terms of neuroaesthetics could be the very key to decoding how the experience of art evokes this emotion of beauty in us.
Dr. TWL: In fact, I would like to put it this way. Aesthetic encounters is perhaps a better term to use in terms of an objective manner that we can use to describe the experience of beauty that we come across every day in our lives. What neuroscientists have tried to explore is actually the biological basis of these experiences. This is important because it can help our understanding of human behavior in evolutionary psychology, which is what we spoke about last episode. Reflecting on this, it eventually does affect the way we think about the process of natural selection. If this affects the basis on how our ancestors, and even us now, choose our partners, which is based on whatever we think is driving the laws of attraction, our choices as a consumer, how we communicate with others, even our preferences for art.
Chelsea: I actually did come across something which I found is relevant here. So apparently, the way we find meaning and knowledge in our experiences actually has more to do with how we perceive it rather than the experiences themselves. I guess this is along the line of what you’re talking about. It is really our perception of the experience that determines how we feel about something.
Experiences of beauty and how we value them
Dr. TWL: This actually brings me to a study that was published in 2014 by a team led by Chatterjee. The study demonstrated that how experiences of beauty, what we will refer to in this episode as a neuroaesthetic experience, is actually related to complex interactions between our senses that impact not just our bodily response, but our emotional valuation – how we value something at that moment. That’s exactly how they describe it.
This process, in which we find meaning and acquire knowledge, can be explained via the process of perception. The neuroaesthetic experience should be considered an emotional response to our external environment perceived via our senses. Essentially, these stimuli are intricately connected via our neural systems. These nerve cells and neurons help us in our mental state to make these decisions. That results in this complex experience we call beauty. Hopefully, that really puts everything into perspective.
Chelsea: As a biochemistry student, I was particularly fascinated by how neurochemistry affects our body responses and also our emotions. Now I know that it actually affects the way I judge something as well. That’s really important because neuroaesthetics itself belongs to the field of cognitive neuroscience.
Links to personality
Dr. TWL: It involves perception, emotion, semantics, our attention, and of course, all think links to our personality as well. This determines how each of these processes differs from another individual’s processes because of these genetic or environmental differences in personality. Ultimately, all of these will impact the decisions we make with regard to the emotional valuation of a subject. Or, what we eventually deem as a beautiful experience. Since 2014, when this study was published up till now, we have seen growing interest in this field. Particularly in terms of how music, art, dance, literature and media has been shown to give a lot of hope to humanity.
Not just in terms of being able to heal the human psyche, because it brings this positive emotion of beauty to the individual. If it were 2 decades ago that we were talking about this, it would have been dismissed as emotional hogwash. However, today, as our understanding of cognitive neuroscience evolves, we know that these positively impact the human body, directly affecting our wellbeing. It is objectively measured via psychology and aesthetic appreciation, encapsulated in this new field of neuroaesthetics.
Interestingly, we can now deduce that whether we think another human being is objectively beautiful or not is potentially inconsequential. This is because our perception can change. Another individual’s perception can be very different from ours. In that sense, there really can be no correct answer with regards to beauty. However, there can be a correct emotion.
Cultures and perception of beauty
Chelsea: I think that there may be a role to acknowledge that there are certain traditionally perceived features that are more attractive to others. Of course, we have to take into consideration the different cultures that also influence our perception of beauty. However, I think we already spoke about this in our previous episode. An objectively beautiful person can come across as ugly because of ugly behaviors. The converse is also true. Now I know that it really is because of this emotion evoked in us as a response to the individual. It’s actually much more than how they look.
Body dysmorphia & the role of physicians
Dr. TWL: It is really a difficult topic. However, what we are trying to do is understand how biological mechanisms have evolved along with humankind. Trying to make sense of what is healthy or unhealthy for the human psyche. For me, I do see a fair number of cosmetic dermatology patients. My plastic surgeon colleagues and I do come across patients with body dysmorphia. This is a psychiatric condition where the individual is obsessed with thoughts of imperfection with regards to their physical features. I wrote about this in my paper¹ published in February this year in the International Journal of Dermatology, as a link to unrealistic societal expectations.
In terms of this, we really need to reflect on how physicians can intervene in a positive or negative way. Before we can sit on our high horse and say, “you just should not think that way”. It is easy for us to say that it’s just a subset of individuals who may be genetically prone to such obsessive thoughts. I think you and I can see from our personal experiences, and maybe even how it has impacted people we know, the social impact on our psyche with regards to the need to look perfect. In the last episode, we mentioned the negative impact of Instagram in our last episode. In particular, for teenage girls and their self esteem. That really has to do with the fact that everything on Instagram is curated. I mean, there is a reason why we use this term ‘Instagram perfect’.
What it means to be ‘Instagram perfect’
In my generation, I feel that it’s easier to distinguish between what is tied to an Instagram perfect world, and what is realistic. It’s why this may be a little bit easier for me to see why certain aspects of this can be unhealthy. In order to make a conscious decision to not be affected by it. However, I’m not certain that the current generation is able to make that distinction. Because this is all they’ve grown up with.
Chelsea: I am part of Gen Z, and from my perspective, I do feel that there is an unrealistic world that is portrayed on Instagram. It is just so pervasive in society that we just give up. We end up even thinking that maybe this really reflects who we are as human beings. Maybe this is how we want to be as a society. What do you think about that?
Dr. TWL: As a physician, I think the key here is to take a rational approach to switch this societal mindset. As a woman of science, our endeavors in science and medicine have led the way forward for advancements. It is based on our logical inquiry method where we see that something that brings about a positive outcome consistently, that is also replicable in certain experiments. Then, it is going to be favored over another option that has a less favorable outcome. That is the reasoning behind us doing clinical trials and employing statistics. In order to state with evidence that option A is better than option B.
Bridge between science and art
With the aim of using art as a relatable experience for this aesthetic experience that we are talking about here, being the best way to determine this concept of beauty in a positive way. With regards to having a positive outcome in terms of emotional wellbeing. Without a doubt, it helps us to not focus on physical experiences. First of all, it is so variable, there is a matter of taste. Even though we have amazing advances in cosmetic dermatology and in plastic surgery, it is still a never-ending quest if you are trying to look like someone else. Or, constantly thinking that you have to look like a better version of yourself.
In terms of what I think a scientific approach to this matter would be, is to reduce emphasis on the perfection of our physical features. This can improve our mental wellbeing. From an artistic perspective, which is what we are using as a standard of the experience of beauty that everyone can relate to, we can also state that art has always been an enigma to scientists. It is so variable, yet it is distinct. In a way that we are almost unable to put our finger on what makes some art beautiful and what makes other art less beautiful.
Cultural distinctiveness of art
The bridge between these two is found in the field of neuroaesthetics. This specialty field of cognitive neuroscience can help us understand the cultural distinctiveness of art. Through different cultures, different types of art, we learn that we can appreciate it across different cultures as if there are some universal properties. I posit that this could actually be due to the fact that we as human beings of the same species are hardwired to genetically find certain things appealing.
The other aspect that is equally curious and paradoxical is that when we say is culturally distinct, it inherently implies great diversity as well. Perhaps, the environmental impact of our personal taste is significant, especially when you consider nature vs nurture. When applied to art itself is, the neuroaesthetic experience is a testimony to the complex functions of the human brain. Despite it being a common feature in terms of structure to all Homo sapiens, it is distinct in terms of how it manifests in human personality. The fact is that it does evolve, depending on how it reacts to environmental influences. This is what we call brain plasticity.
Chelsea: I actually never thought of it this way before! I guess I can somehow relate it to that idea. I for one have always wondered if animals, for example, would go about judging other animals as being beautiful or not the way we humans do. Isn’t that quite funny to think about?
The way humans perceive beauty
Dr. TWL: I think we have to realize that perhaps it is us humans that are uniquely imbued with this very specific trait of perception or valuation. We’re not very sure if the other species have that level of perception as well, though we know that they are conscious. As a medical doctor, and also as an individual who appreciates art, I feel that every encounter with an artwork is factually proven to engage flexible neural networks in an individual’s brain. That can be used as evidence that something is happening to modulate this context in which art is appreciated by us.
Our expectations are also different. In terms of our personal biases, which can be due to experiences from the past. Or, our current emotional state, our personal hopes and aspirations. All of that actually culminate in one momentary assessment or judgment of the aesthetic experience. Leading us to call something beautiful versus something that doesn’t appeal to us. So what we really need to understand right now is that this appreciation of art may be the key to how we are wired as human beings to experience beauty. This is distinct to our species.
Importance of art in society
Chelsea: I feel that it is so important for us to recognize the role that the humanities and arts have to play in our overall wellbeing. When the COVID 19 pandemic first started in Singapore, there was this declaration that there were certain jobs regarded as essential. Healthcare, for example, was under the essential jobs categories. Certainly, there were many individuals who were feeling upset and lost. Because, for those who work in the art, for example, it seemed to send a message that they no longer played a role in society.
Dr. TWL: I feel that this is really the defining moment for a lot of us. Singapore, as an urban society, is one that prides itself on being highly pragmatic. This in terms of our workaholic culture and clockwork-like efficiency. It’s really fantastic that there have been lots of advocacy for the arts in the last decade. Well it’s also time for us to acknowledge that this appreciation of art is part of our core as human beings. That is because we have emotions, moods and different thoughts that we have every single moment of the day.
Mindfulness and art
The perception and viewing of art can actually be a meditative experience. Which in itself, is beneficial for our physiological wellbeing. Because, at the very least when we view a piece of artwork, we actually start to reflect on our own mental and emotional state. This is something psychiatrists call a mindful state. The other thing that we recognize here is that appreciation of certain types of art can actually be learned. That is interesting because of the biological process of the network connection. Which strengthens when the individual has repeated exposure to a certain type of artwork.
Chelsea: This means that our perceptions of beauty can actually be taught. And maybe, we can potentially change the way we see things. I see where we’re headed for now!
Cosmetic dermatology, plastic surgery & beauty
Dr. TWL: I feel that if that is one thing that I would like to see a change in. It is really how we should proceed as a society to view the topic of physical beauty. We are very fortunate to have several interventions in our armamentarium in cosmetic dermatology and plastic surgery to reconstruct, to restore. But as important as these things are, especially to individuals who are sufferers of trauma. For example, I feel that there is something which seems to be an insidious poison than anything else that is relevant to the realm of cosmetic dermatology today. This is body dysmorphia, which is a vicious cycle.
I’m going to revisit this again. Essentially, those who suffer from this have a perception that one of their body parts is flawed. It kind of takes over their entire mind. Additionally, it becomes an obsessive thought and a compulsion that arises to change that perception. This is the perceived flawed part of themselves. That actually is a real problem when we are treating certain individuals in a cosmetic setting.
Why mental health is so important
I feel that as much as we would like to say that psychiatric conditions are influenced by one’s genetics, societal expectations can also impact the individual. Because we’ve learned that these processes of emotional valuation are not exactly innate and can be taught. So our perception of certain things can change.
It is my hope, of course, that we eventually start to acknowledge that ultimately, it is physical health that is much more important than anything else. Part of physical health is also mental and emotional health. We have seen, for example, many suicides in the entertainment industry. In particular, in Korean pop culture, it’s been very well publicized to be very harsh on the entertainers and their self esteem. Because of the expectations to keep to a certain appearance or weight.
Beauty as a social construct
I think that once we realize that our brain has these very flexible networks, and that this standard of beauty is actually a societal construct, then our brains can adapt. We can then be under less pressure to look a certain way. As a medical doctor, I feel that we should be the first to lead the way in terms of bringing about a world where hopefully we make it a little kinder and gentler on individuals who may not feel like they were born with perfect features. Hopefully, this will help them on a psychological level. At least, when we start positively influencing them from young, as opposed to only trying to correct this when they present issues with regards to self esteem.
Chelsea: Well, I am not exactly an artist, but I think I can certainly appreciate what you’re talking about. Because I have found myself being able to like something which I previously didn’t see beauty in before. I think that art itself is very interesting as a universal experience, because in a sense, everyone can perceive art. It might as well be synonymous with the aesthetic experience that is common to all of us humankind.
Dr. TWL: Now we also know there is a solid biological and scientific system with all these neural systems common to us. I think it is pertinent for us to put a functional note to this discussion about the aesthetic experience.
What we’ve covered today actually is this. There are certain standards of beauty that are probably a result of historical evolution. Our hardwired instincts in terms of what we are looking for, for example, in a partner following the laws of evolution and natural selection. We also realize that there is this neurocognitive process happening. Which we can describe as a neuroaesthetic experience that involves our senses, and how it is communicating with our minds. Organically, our brains seem to be the place where these decisions are being made. How we arrive at the judgement of something being beautiful is actually a result of many different factors.
Through our understanding of the brain and cognitive neuroscience, we know that at the end of the day, it is very much a matter of choice rather than what is considered objective reality. My hope is that today’s podcast brings some clarity with regards to how we can rationalize an approach towards beauty that is good for our psychological wellbeing. At the same time, it is consistent with what we know is happening in our bodies and brains. So that we are still following scientific methods to pursue a rather abstract experience. In that way, we can perhaps allow some level of intervention on a societal level. Eventually, this can help us move in a positive direction with regards to managing beauty standards and perceptions.
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Chelsea: It’s been a really insightful podcast for me, and I’m really excited for this series on neuroaesthetics. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this discussion, I certainly enjoyed being a part of it. For more on the podcast, do check out our website www.scienceofbeauty.net. We have a new section on augmented reality, and there will be more on that coming up soon. Remember to follow Dr. Teo on Instagram @drteowanlin for the latest podcast updates, and we’ll see you next week
Dr. Teo has published a position paper¹ on how our physical appearances and the process of ageing can be affected by emotional aspects, which presents as an opportunity for intervention from a mental health perspective.
- 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]