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The Gestalt Principles, the main tenets of a psychological study on visual perception, argue that our eyes tend to distinguish an image by the sum of its total parts rather than by its separate features.
Humans group together similar objects based on factors including proximity and distance, similarity, and symmetry, and thereby the brain can effortlessly process what it observes. In this case, symmetry plays a key role in determining the ways in which humans view and analyze their physical surroundings.
The brain favors symmetrical images that, according to web designer and writer Steven Bradley, feel “stable” and “balanced.”
Fundamental rules of design state that humans prefer these clean, balanced images that don’t puzzle the brain, or cause what Bradley refers to as unwanted “tension,” and yet there remains a demand for asymmetry and confusion in fashion, art, and architecture.
Our eyes, naturally, look for objects that break up an image and navigate in a direction or space that disrupts the human-identified patterns outlined in Gestalt psychology. These disruptions draw the eye away, confusing us and thereby drawing more of our attention. If we spot an assumed error or discrepancy, that image sticks in our memory more than one of perfection.
Picasso’s most popular paintings, for example, often portray faces as vastly asymmetrical and distorted; drawing focus and increasing interest with pops of color and previously hidden lines that seem to appear as one continues to unravel the art. This begs the important question of whether or not symmetry, and the lack thereof, plays a role in the myriad ways in which humans perceive faces of other humans, internally judging and classifying them based on their appearances.
Sharrona Pearl, an Assistant Professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, explores the nineteenth century study of Physiognomy in her book “About Faces.”
Physiognomy, a now-obsolete study of facial features and their relationship to character, dates back to a time far before the popular 19th century push for its inclusion as a legitimate science. During that time period, Pearl tells BTR, physical appearance indicated the presence of specific personality traits. She points to popular novels of the period, in which authors devoted whole pages to the comprehensive physical descriptions that followed the introduction of any memorable character.
While modern readers often glaze over such minutia, these descriptions played their part in providing specific character information that we no longer understand or find useful, from a time when physical appearance communicated as much information as a conversation.
“Knowing that they would be judged by their faces,” explains Pearl, “19th century people manipulated or neglected their appearance in various contexts in order to relay information.” While “About Faces” explores the role of the face as a means by which people communicated information in the 19th century, it questions the relevancy of judging physical traits as a basis of internal character in today’s world.
“We do still imagine that we know about the inside of people based on their external manifestations, that the body is an index to the soul,” Pearl says, “and continue conducting biological and anthropological studies on the matter.”These studies tend to focus on both the biological and social significance of facial symmetry–specifically whether or not facial symmetry indicates internal health or external attractiveness and if these factors influence personal success.
One UK study, conducted by psychologists, asserts that “individuals differ in their ability to maintain the stable development of their morphology,” while experiencing, “the prevailing environmental conditions under which that development is taking place.”
In short, bodies may undergo specific changes in shape and size as a result of environmental and biological factors. The same concept applies to facial features.
Pearl agrees with this idea, but notes the existence of studies which attempt to prove a connection between facial symmetry and evolutionary fitness. The notion that individuals who are, “more symmetrical somehow have better genes or are better in reproduction,” presents mostly correlative rather than universal results.
Indeed, Pearl says, the results of these evolutionary studies on mating potential linking facial features to genetic information directly contradict each other.
A person working in a hunched position all day long while digging holes for a living, for example, will eventually develop a curvature to the spine. Observers may view this spine curvature as a marker of some genetic bone weakness, when in actuality it developed as a response to environmental factors. Meanwhile, there is a scale to how humans view facial symmetry: the eyes dislike excessively asymmetrical faces but actually feel similarly toward flawless symmetry.
“Too much symmetry in the face,” Pearl observes, “looks eerie, unsettling, and soulless.”
Surprisingly, Pearl argues that most people prefer a small display of personality through “some identifiable asymmetrical marker.” These markers help an individual stand out as a memorable figure. Without any unique facial quirks, an individual does not necessarily spark the same confusion in the brain that asymmetry causes.
Asymmetrical elements, including larger noses and uneven eyes, remain memorable long after an initial meeting. The brain retains this perplexing image more clearly than an easily digestible face, so that the asymmetrical face becomes less forgettable. Whether or not an observer equates symmetry to attractiveness, they still tend to remember an asymmetrical face as a result of its unusual qualities.
As for the concepts behind physiognomy, and the face’s role in communicating character through perceived attractiveness, asymmetry’s supposed unattractiveness does not necessarily parallel a less-than-savory inner character.
“Maybe we should think not about the face as an indicator of a positive personality trait,” Pearl says, “but how a personality trait may develop as a response to the ways in which people treat the people whose faces they find attractive.”
Perhaps Pearl’s theory explains more candidly why attractive (and symmetrical) people tend to excel in professional and personal circumstances more often than those perceived as grossly asymmetrical or unattractive.