Usually when I’m walking through the streets of Paris, I have my phone clutched in my hand with my eyes glued to Google Maps on my screen. Fortunately, now that over a week has passed and I actually know the route from the metro stop to our apartment, I am able to familiarize myself with the different stores and boutiques that we stroll past every day. One symbol that has caught my eye repeatedly is a green glowing cross. It signals a “pharmacie” here in Paris. During our ten-minute commute, we walk past not one, not two, but four pharmacies.
French pharmacies are a bit different than the usual CVS that we go to in America. Similar to the states, pharmacies are the place Parisians go to when they need to get some over-the-counter drugs, medicine, or antibiotics. But one can also visit a pharmacie when they need high quality cosmetics, hygiene, and beauty products. The shelves are lined with expensive-sounding brands in beautiful glass bottles, yet the prices for most products are around the same cost as my lunch. As a self-proclaimed “skincare junkie”, I was in absolute awe at not only the affordability of the products, but also at the wide variety and novelty of it all. By our fourth day in Paris, my skin had already started breaking out, and I set out to buy some new items to add to my skincare routine.
Based on the high prevalence of pharmacie locations, it is no surprise that the French value their skincare. The French standard of beauty seems like it is not the same as Americans, illustrated by a simple search on Youtube on “French versus American makeup”. It is evident by the thumbnails that the French embrace an aesthetic that is much more natural, understated, and effortlessly chic. In order to achieve that, they focus on a flawless base achieved by skincare. Just after a few days of observation, my fellow female classmates and I have all shared the same sentiment: “How do the French have such nice skin? How are French girls so pretty?” As I have made it my personal goal to get even an inch closer to the unattainable “French-girl beauty”, I started to think about how the brain perceives beauty and attractiveness in human faces.
Human faces are one of the most interesting visual stimuli that we perceive on a daily basis. Each unique face can convey information about a person, including their age, sex, and emotional state. The ability of our brain to take this information and process it within milliseconds plays a critical role in our day-to-day social interactions. There is evidence that supports the face-specificity hypothesis, which states that humans have specialized cognitive and neural mechanisms that are dedicated to the perception of faces (Kanwisher & Yovel, 2006). Previous studies have shown that the brain uses at least three cognitive domains in deciding the value of attractiveness: the occipital and temporal lobe to process face views, the inferior occipital gyri which perceives facial features, and the fusiform face area (FFA) which receives that information and plays a key role in facial recognition (Yarosh, 2019).
A meta-analysis study conducted by Bzdok et al. gathered multiple studies that investigated the neural correlates of evaluating facial attractiveness. When analyzing the fMRI experiments on attractiveness judgments, it was seen that facial beauty might be evaluated in the orbitofrontal cortex, which in a nutshell is responsible for cognitive decision-making, according to reward value. Additionally, it was found that the amygdala detects the socio-emotional value, or the “beauty”, of the sensory stimuli that we come across visually and aurally. The combination of these results suggests that there is a general role of the reward circuitry in social judgments. (Bzdok et al., 2011). Essentially, this study was able to show that the assessment of beauty in our brains deals with reward stimulation, and that attractiveness is a social marker of long-evolutionary success, a.k.a. having more kids. Having a lot of children holds high socio-emotional value.
Unsurprisingly, the judgement of attractiveness across men and women is quite similar. A study that covered 919 studies and over 15,000 observers reported that people agree, both within cultures and across cultures, who is attractive and who is not (Langlois, et al. 2000). Six-month-old infants even gaze longer at faces judged by adults as “attractive” and spent less time looking at faces that were judged as not attractive (Ramsey, et al. 2004). This data suggests that judgments of physical attractiveness are somehow hard-wired in human genetics, and the actual neural circuitry that takes place within the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala back up those claims. Hopefully, with a bit of luck and some extra French skincare, six-month-old infants will take a longer look at me. In the meantime, here are some locations where YOU can pick up from quality skincare products! Just look at how many locations there are!
Bzdok, D, Langner R, Caspers S, Kurth F, Habel U, Zilles K, Laird A, Eickhoff SB (2011) ALE meta-analysis on facial judgments of trust-worthiness and attractiveness. Brain Struct. Funct 215: 209–2231
Kanwisher N, Yovel G (2006) The fusiform face area: A cortical region specialized for the perception of faces. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 361:2109–2128
Langlois J, Rubenstein A, Larson A, Hallam M, Smoot M (2000) Maxim or Myths of Beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychol. Bull 126: 390–423
Ramsey J, Langlois J, Hoss R, Rubenstein A, Griffin A (2004) Origins of a stereotype: Categorization of facial attractiveness by 6-month-old infants. Dev. Sci 7: 201–211.
Yarosh, DB (2019) Perception and Deception: Human Beauty and the Brain. Behavioral sciences 9: 34