Beauty and the Brain: how the history of art and cognitive psychology affect identity


Interesting program called “How Art Made The World – More Human Than Human” a BBC documentary regarding theories about trends in human art history suggests that we tend to create images, not to represent reality, but an ideal. Like the Venus of Wilandorf, or the Greek sculptures of athletes, the human form is represented with enhanced features, features that were an important focus for a particular culture at a particular time – for whatever reason. The argument is that ancient humans were technically capable of representing more realistic human forms, they just chose not to.

Image Flash forward a few millennia and this theory could be used to explain contemporary adculture. Current cognitive psychology theories of perception in humans (not seagulls or red stripes on beaks, which in my novice opinion have more to do with evolutionary psychology and survival than ideals of beauty) could also also support this idea I think. This is a theory I am developing anyway after taking cognitive science courses I am having a much better understanding of communication theory.

For example: The brain notices the novel and pays extra attention to the unordinary. Think, for example, of when you have met someone who had a nose (or some other feature) that was larger than anyone else’s you have ever seen before. You probably recall the experience well, and remembering really noticing it, could not ignore it  and likely felt you might be staring at it for a socially inappropriate period of time. Such a stimulus for your brain and the processes that follow fix the experience in your memory along with associations and assumptions based on previous experiences and cultural knowledge. The brain will also make associations with this new experience based on whether the person was perceived to be physically aggressive or passive, soft spoken or boisterous, eccentric or conservative, and so on.


Unless you consciously override this process, the next time you meet someone with a similarly large nose, your memory will be triggered and subconsciously you will have certain expectations of the person based on your previous encounter and the associations you made. You may realize this consciously or subconsciously and depending on the impact of the experience you may, consciously or subconsciously, start to emulate them if you are impressed by them, especially if you notice that others people are too. You will want to experience that perhaps, you may want others to feel a similar impact when they meet you. You attribute the impact of the experience to the fact that people with big noses are much more loved, wanted and accepted in your community. So, you might look into how diet or exercise could make your nose bigger so that you too can be more accepted and loved like that, and when you realize that method of pursuit does not produce a nose big enough, you may turn to surgery for better results.

This may all seem laughable, but think of it how this could apply to physical features that humans in our culture currently focus on and put importance on. Large breasts, and small waists for example, or pale skin, wide eyes, full lips and small noses. These are the ideals that get portrayed in our media and are criticized by some (ie: Jean Kilbourne) as harmful and ridiculously inauthentic and unrealistic. And yet there are thousands more images created in a similar way, and thousands of people who go out of their way to emulate them. Think of Michael Jackson’s transformation or Deborah Voigt’s.

Image Image

Were these people unduly pressured by media images? or was their internal desire to be more accepted and loved stronger?

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