The Rewards of Beauty

Pretty girl wearing a purple nylon turtleneck
Beauty is (Like) a Drug
A study by medical researchers has found that looking at beautiful female faces activates the same part of the brain that is affected by drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and alcohol.
The reward system in the human brain is highly susceptible to pleasurable stimulation, and this mechanism in the brain has been linked to addictions to drugs, food, and gambling. According to the study published in the scientific journal Neuron, a beautiful woman’s face has a similar affect on men’s brains.
While other researchers have focused on how the brain processes the visual perception of faces, researchers Hans Breiter, MD, and Nancy Etcoff, PhD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital focused instead on how the reward systems of the brain respond to beautiful faces.
Beauty and the Brain
Researchers utilized a variety of techniques to study the responses of a group of young, heterosexual men. A collection of 80 photographs was chosen by researchers to represent four different categories: average-looking males, beautiful males, average-looking females, and beautiful females. The researchers then assessed how the participants rated the attractiveness of each photograph, how long participants looked at each photograph, and how the images affected neurological functioning.
To assess brain activity, one group of participants had images taken of their brain with an MRI as they looked at the faces in each photograph. "Earlier studies that I and others have conducted follow evidence that the perception of beauty is inborn, that similar features are regarded as beautiful universally. If beauty is indeed hard-wired into the brain by natural selection, we would expect to find circuits in the brain that respond to beauty,” explained Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty.
The study found that the men not only rated beautiful faces highly, they also spent more time looking at them. Most significantly, the results of brain imaging demonstrated that looking a beautiful woman’s face activated the reward system of the brain. One interesting result was that looking at images of attractive male faces actually decreased the amount of activity in the brain reward system. "It's particularly interesting that the attractive male faces actually produced what could be considered an aversion response, even though they had been recognized as attractive,” noted lead author Hans Breiter.
The study demonstrates that the brain’s reward system plays an important role in attraction. While many aspects of attraction are affected by other variables such as personal characteristics and individual preferences, it is also important to consider the biology of attraction.
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