Wrong Reality: How Our Brains Warp the World
YouTube screen capture
Photographs of celebrities side-by-side appear to morph when one member of a pair has a face that is structured very differently from the other.
Nefertiti, 1330-1370 BC
April 12, 2012 -
When the face of a movie star appearing "puffy" can spark a media frenzy, the focus on female beauty seems to have reached an all-time high. A recent piece by actress Ashley Judd in the Daily Beast calls out the media for their concentration on women's bodies and looks. After widespread speculation that the actress had plastic surgery she calls the conversation about beauty "nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women...endure every day." Here, we look at what that conversation has looked like through the years -- from Nefertiti to Michelle Obama. This representation of the pharaoh's wife, Nefertiti, is thought to be the most beautiful by both modern and ancient Egyptian standards, says Joann Fletcher, an honorary research fellow at the University of York, who has studied Nefertiti extensively. Nefertiti lived from about 1330-1370 BC. "While its specific facial proportions are almost completely symmetrical, again conforming to this notion of beauty, the sculpted face is further enhanced by the artist's very skilful use of color to suggest the application of a black eye paint and red lip color, creating the idealized form of beauty we see in other representations of ancient Egyptian women," she said. "In other representations of women at this time, the hair can sometimes tend to obscure their facial features, since it frames the face in a curtain-like mass of braids and plaits, the hair being another attribute of beauty associated with Hathor, goddess of beauty, who was also hailed as 'She of the Beautiful Hair' and 'Lady of the Lock'."
Venus and Adonis by Peter Paul Rubens, 1635 Today, "Rubenesque" is a polite way to say "big" or "plus-sized." Peter Paul Rubens painted portraits of full-figured women in the early 1600s, inspired by his second wife, 16-year-old Hélène Fourment.
Gibson Girl, 1897 "In the late 19th century, the emphasis was really on women’s facial features," said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a historian who wrote "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls." "The bosom was noticed in the 19th century but not with too much cleavage." Women wore corsets, and the Gibson Girls showed off slender waists. Ankles, also, were highly sexualized. Photo: Von Charles Dana Gibson: Aus dem Jahre
Flapper Girls, 1929 Around World War I, with the advent of movies, the body begins to be emphasized as much, or more, than the face. "Fashion has changed so that a slim silhouette in a chemise is ideal, and matronly seems old fashioned. Women are dancing and doing sports, and they are no longer infatuated with the Victorian ideal of being frail and sickly,” Brumberg said.
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Marilyn Monroe, 1955 After WWII, technology started changing the way beauty was perceived: bathrooms with electric lights and mirrors highlighted concerns about acne and formerly overlooked details, Brumberg said. Corsets replace girdles, and bra cups became extremely pointed. Actress Marilyn Monroe was perceived as the epitome of beauty in the 50s. There's been much speculation about her size and weight. Was she really a plus-sized beauty, asks this piece in Jezebel which dug up the actress's actual dress size numbers. Photo: Actress Marilyn Monroe on the set of "The Seven Year Itch," directed by Billy Wilder in 1955.
Betty Page, 1955 In 1955, Betty Page won the title "Miss Pinup Girl of the World." She was known as "The Queen of Curves" and "The Dark Angel."
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Twiggy, 1966 “It wasn’t just feminists who burned bras,” Brumberg said. “Bras and underwear changed. The body becomes something for you to control from the inside, through diet and exercise, instead of exterior control through the corset. Different body parts get attention in different ways.” Model and actress Twiggy personified the swinging 60s mod culture in London. Twiggy was known for her androgynous looks, large eyes and short hair. In 1966, she was named "The Face of 1966" by the Daily Express and voted British Woman of the Year.
Christie Brinkley, 1987 When Allure magazine conducted a poll on beauty in 1990, Christie Brinkley embodied the all-American look, landing her on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition three times. When Allure did a similar survey in 2010, attitudes had changed: 69 percent of respondents no longer believed in a single "all-American" look. Women and men picked a Latina model as most attractive among pictures of different races and ethnicities. Photo: Christie Brinkley Sighting in London - July 12, 1987
Michelle Obama, 2012 "Michelle Obama is very much about health and mobility and activity and strength,” Brumberg said. “People may say she looks hot, but really they’re saying she’s an icon for the women’s health movement.” Obama’s body suggests healthy eating, she notes, whereas today's fashion magazines still portray more emaciated bodies.
Ashley Judd, 2012 Ashley Judd's piece in the Daily Beast asks everyone to try to change the conversation about beauty. "If this conversation about me is going to be had, I will do my part to insist that it is a feminist one, because it has been misogynistic from the start. " "Why was a puffy face cause for such a conversation in the first place? How, and why, did people participate? If not in the conversation about me, in parallel ones about women in your sphere? What is the gloating about? What is the condemnation about? What is the self-righteous alleged 'all knowing' stance of the media about? How does this symbolize constraints on girls and women, and encroach on our right to be simply as we are, at any given moment?”
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Tom Cruise, Keira Knightly, Angelina Jolie: When viewed one at a time on a computer screen, photographs of gorgeous celebrities highlight pleasing features on generally symmetrical faces. But if you look at the same images side-by-side while focusing on a cross between them, something bizarre happens. The faces begin to morph, becoming bulbous and grotesque, especially when one member of a pair has a face that is structured very differently from the other.
The optical illusion, as described in a 2011 research paper and illustrated in a disturbing YouTube video, is just one example of how our senses often distort reality -- a concept illustrated in a recent Dove ad that showed how other people tend to see us as more beautiful than we see ourselves. In the video, an FBI forensic artist drew women as they described their own faces and as others described them.
Through studies of illusions like these, along with research on vision, brain science and memory, researchers are beginning to understand the limits of our ability to interpret the endless reams of input that we absorb all day long. We often see things that aren’t there and don’t see things that are.
And while many details about the relevant brain processes remain mysterious, it seems that our innate tendency to distort reality can be a useful trait.
“One way we think about perception is that it’s an interpretation of the world rather than a veridical representation of the world because it makes us function in the world,” said Kalanit Grill-Spector, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. “If you were representing exactly what was hitting your eyes, it might not be optimal for your behavior.”
She offered a red tomato as an example. If you were to use a spectrometer to measure the wavelengths of light that bounce off of a tomato in different environments, the quality of the fruit’s redness would appear to be wildly different when held outside than it would in the produce aisle of the supermarket. To our eyes, however, the same tomato looks equally red in both places, and that kind of color constancy allows our brains to understand that a tomato is a tomato, no matter where it is.
In another famous illusion, an image can appear to be a duck or a rabbit, depending on which part of the picture you focus your eyes on.
“In this situation where an ambiguous stimulus is prone to multiple interpretations, your brain has to resolve it,” Grill-Spector said. “There might be competition in your brain and it might be happening all the time. If you are walking in the fog and it’s not clear what you’re seeing; you have to make an inference.”
Photographs of celebrities side-by-side appear to morph when one member of a pair has a face that is structured very differently from the other.YouTube screen capture
Studying illusions can help scientists better understand how information travels from our eyes to specific areas of our brains and what goes wrong in people, who may, for example, have trouble recognizing faces.
Memory research offers similar insights. Just as it can be helpful for our brains to fill in information so that we “see” what isn’t really there, it’s adaptive for our memories to be less than perfectly accurate, said Sasha Cervantes, a human memory researcher at the University of Chicago.
“The brain requires energy to function and we couldn’t consume enough sugar to retain and filter all the information we take in on a daily basis,” Cervantes said. “It would be inefficient. It’s not necessarily the best thing for us to remember everything with perfect clarity.”
From moment to moment, our biases and feelings influence the way we perceive the present and what we decide to pay attention to or consider important, she added. Later on, we can only remember the details we noticed in the first place.
Even then, every act of remembering involves a reconstruction of what happened, which makes memories malleable. Memories also change as we hear other people’s accounts of them or as we pick certain memories to reinforce at the expense of others.
Understanding the flexibility of memories has become important in research on post-traumatic stress disorder. For people who have experienced trauma, intentionally morphing memories may be the key to recovery.
In ongoing research, Cervantes said, scientists are slowly piecing together a complicated picture of the brain regions involved in forming and reforming memories and how those regions communicate with each other.
For now, what’s clear is that reality is a shifting concept that is colored by a person’s beliefs and past experiences, which explains why two people can have opposite opinions about whether a third person is attractive or not, among other differences in perception. The way we experience reality also changes over time.
“You have a constantly evolving perception of the world around you,” Cervantes said. “If you’ve ever read an article or book and then reread it 10 years later, you take it in in a completely different way. You’ve got a whole ever-changing set of knowledge you’re going to embed and integrate” into your experiences.