Jackie Novak and Claudia Bentley sit across from me, poised to play my game.
Jackie’s straight blonde hair sits above her shoulders showcasing her large, silver earrings. Claudia’s dark-rimmed glasses frame her face, and her bright red and green Christmas jewelry pops against the stark black and white stripes of her sweater. With Santa’s sleigh wrapped around her neck, tiny snowmen swaying from her wrist, and Rudolph dangling from her ears, Claudia is ready for the season. Jackie reaches up to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear in a fashion eerily similar to Claudia’s.
I enlisted these 63-year-old identical twins as a part of my own informal experiment. I was following the lead of a new study from the October issue of Cell. Professor Jeremy Wilmer of Wellesley University and post-doctoral fellow Laura Germine of Massachusetts General Hospital had set out to study beauty preferences between twins. They found, surprisingly, that the age-old adage may be true: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, even for two people who share 100% of their genes.
Researchers and philosophers alike have tried to understand beauty: what makes an object or person appealing to another. Wilmer and Germine found that half of everyone’s preferences are shared, and half are individual — placing more emphasis on personal experiences and opinions on attractiveness than originally thought.
For the Cell study, identical twin participants took surveys and tests on Germine’s brain game website, looking at different computer-generated faces and rating their attractiveness. My casual experiment mimicked the researchers’, but instead of using a program to create people, I made the faces more recognizable. Jackie and Claudia were forced to choose between celebrities.
They agreed on the male actors – their decisions so quick they sounded almost rehearsed. George Clooney outdid Johnny Depp, and John Stamos beat Jake Gyllenhaal. But when asked to pick actresses, Claudia and Jackie weren’t so agreeable. Jackie thought Meryl Streep was a classic beauty, but Claudia preferred Farrah Faucett and said she was more of bombshell. Jackie also chose Kate Winslet over Rachel McAdams, but Claudia disagreed.
Scientists love to question nature versus nurture, and studies like mine – well, the more scientific versions – add fodder to the idea that decisions of attraction are all our own.
“Different people have different tastes and different preferences,” says Wilmer. “People, even twins, go out and search for different things.”
So the rules of attraction are more than just genetics. Wilmer says our personal experiences play a large role in what and whom we find beautiful. Every unique experience contributes to people’s preferences. Every face you see on your morning commute, on your evening run, and even while scrolling through your social media feeds subtly affects you and your choices.
Another interesting finding of the Cell paper is that the more average the face, the more attractive it is. Wilmer and Germine’s team used a morphing program to blend the faces together in their study. Participants picked the blended face every time.
“Familiarity drives the averageness preference over time,” says Germine. This familiarity stems from all the faces you come across throughout the day. People are more likely to find particular faces attractive if they feel at ease, if they recognize the look. That’s how twins can differ so much. Rachel McAdams’ look may have been more prevalent in Claudia’s daily life and Kate Winslet’s look in Jackie’s. The subtle differences are the important ones.
But not everyone can focus on unique preferences. Ad campaigns and film directors want to appeal to the average shopper, and to do so, they use the average face. Carolyn Clark is an advertising professor at Boston University, and she has held senior positions at multiple advertising agencies. She says it’s important to focus on the faces that the general population agrees are attractive.
“I can’t send you a private message while also appealing to a large group of people,” she says. “The target for an ad is never just one person.”
Understanding beauty perception is also important for you and me. We date, we get married, or we stay single. We find particular people cute, hot, beautiful, or handsome. But getting to the bottom of who, why, and how is the role of “neuroaesthetics,” an emerging realm of study devoted to the brain’s interpretation and reaction to beauty.
“The aesthetic” was a term coined by philosophers as a way to look at regular objects – they believed there was a specific region in the brain devoted to interpreting beauty in art and people. Neuroaesthetics emerges from this idea. Scientists want to locate the brain area in charge of determining beauty and discover the physiological basis for Claudia and Jackie’s difference of opinion.
Steven Brown, a neuroscience professor at McMaster University in Ontario, is one of those scientists. Brown and his team examined the brain’s reaction to aesthetically pleasing paintings and objects in over 90 other neuroimaging studies. As it turns out, a small portion of the brain found in the deep recesses of the cerebral cortex perceives beauty. It’s called the anterior insula, and it’s the same area that processes pain and disgust. And it does so differently in each person even if they are identical twins.
Brown’s interpretation: the anterior insula is merely determining how useful something might be, whether it be a flower, painting, or potential mate. Food, for example, is appealing when you’re hungry, but not when you’re feeling ill. The anterior insula determines which of those reactions is right for you. It’s a basic to-eat-or-not-to-eat question, and hot-or-not falls under that same job description.
Another paper co-authored by Brandeis University’s Matthew Bronstad and Harvard University’s Richard Russell adds another fold to our understanding of beauty.
Bronstad and Russell separated their participants into siblings, spouses, friends, and strangers. Previous papers show that people across cultures can agree on attractive faces, but people within the same or similar culture tend to agree more often. By segregating study participants, the researchers determined that beauty is in fact a social construct, determined by your surroundings. Results showed that spouses agreed on attractiveness most often, followed by siblings, friends, and then strangers. The differences between spouses, siblings, and friends, was not statistically significant.
“Every time they walk down the street, they’re looking at different faces,” says Wilmer. “Take a whole lifetime of that, and that can really add up.”
Without caller ID, Claudia and Jackie’s family have a hard time distinguishing them over the phone. Their own dad used each twin’s personal greeting to sort them out. Claudia always started her calls with “Hey, Daddy,” and Jackie began with “Hey, Pop.” Genetics may determine the sound of their voices, but personality rings true in the end.
Different experiences distinguish our opinions and perceptions. Claudia and Jackie are just another example of that.