“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.” ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
I confess: I’m a Face Man. I love looking at women’s faces. All kinds. If I look long enough, depending upon how the women who own them operate in the world, inevitably they all turn beautiful. For many years I was ashamed of this covert draw to women’s faces. Until I realized I was in very good company: Pope John Paul II. In 2000 he emailed UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel and told him he was very “interested in the mother’s gaze.” Apparently Pope John Paul was a Face Man as well!
Breast Generated View
Almost all of us come into the world and spend our early life experiences gazing at a single woman’s face, our mother’s. Over time our relationship develops and as we ideally learn to skillfully co-regulate one another, mother’s face takes on a unique beauty that emerges out of us being well cared for. The pleasure and reward circuits of our brain fire repeatedly in response to being bathed, fed, powdered, swaddled, soothed and snuggled. In the process they almost unavoidably become Pavlovily paired with mother’s face. Even the face of a woman homely by social convention, when she’s kind, considerate and loving in relationship, in the eye of the beholder, her face will morph into a thing of beauty. It’s something that our neural networks seem pre-wired to do. So it’s of little surprise that women too, love looking at a beautiful woman’s face. Like so much of early life, it traces back to mom.
In other face attraction research, Laura Germine, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed the preferences of people who looked at 35000 different faces. Her takeaway from the study: what people find attractive is primarily dependent upon their early life experiences. What she didn’t test, but what Craig Roberts at The University of Newcastle did, was when and if a woman’s face is more attractive at some times more than others. Turns out it is: when they’re most fertile women and men find women’s faces most attractive.
One reason beauty is in the eye of the beholder is that we learn what’s beautiful by how it makes us feel – how it triggers the serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and other arousing pleasure bio-drivers in our body and brain. Scientists who know a lot about our brain’s draw to faces have long argued for the face-specificity hypothesis – that humans have specialized cognitive and neural mechanisms dedicated to the perception of faces. Most of their research has pointed, not unexpectedly, to the “fusiform face area (FFA).” I say not unexpectedly because this area was discovered to be the part of the brain damaged in people suffering from prosopagnosia or “face blindness.” Face blindness results in an inability to recognize the faces of people whom you’ve known for long periods of your life. You can even lose the ability to recognize your own face in a mirror if your FFA is sufficiently damaged.
One of the world’s leading fusiform face area researchers is MIT neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher. Her discovery of the properties of the FFA has come from placing herself in a fMRI brain scanner over and over again while she looked a thousands of pictures of faces alternated with pictures of things that weren’t faces. Only while observing faces does the FFA light up. As Nancy so eloquently points out, while we all have a fusiform face area, each of our areas is unique to us – different in size and place in the brain. Presumably a large FFA would seem to account for me and Pope Paul being such “face men.”
It’s Not You, It’s Your Mother’s Face
And if you’re the beautiful woman being constantly stared at? Until someone actually spends time with you and gets to know you, how can it be the least bit personal? It’s not. It’s neurobiological (Neurobiology probably also accounts in some small degree for why MySpace and Linked In have become massively overshadowed by … FaceBook, which began as a tool called “Course Match” used to study and learn about art works for an art history class, but then morphed into a tool used to study and learn about art works called … people. With faces. Additionally, faces turn out to be the single most common image found in Western art).
So, if you happen to be a person blessed with a so-called beautiful face, recognized that every upside comes with a downside to it – both are inevitably your cross to wear for the world to see. Learn to live skillfully with people’s draw to it.