Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

The Appraisal of Facial Beauty Is Rapid but Not Mandatory

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

The Appraisal of Facial Beauty Is Rapid but Not Mandatory

Article excerpt

Facial attractiveness is an important source of social affective information. Here, we studied the time course and task dependence of evaluating attractive faces from a viewer's perspective. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were recorded while participants classified color portraits of unfamiliar persons according to gender and facial attractiveness. During attractiveness classification, enhanced ERP amplitudes for attractive and nonattractive faces relative to faces of intermediate attractiveness were found for an early component around 150 msec and for the late positive complex (LPC). Whereas LPC enhancement conforms to previous studies employing various types of affective stimuli, the finding of an early effect extends earlier research on rapid emotion processing to the dimension of facial attractiveness. Dipole source localization of this early ERP effect revealed a scalp distribution suggesting activation of posterior extrastriate areas. Importantly, attractiveness-related modulations of brain responses were only marginal during the gender decision task, arguing against the automaticity of attractiveness appraisal.

Facial attractiveness is considered a key feature in social interactions, and one that plays a major role in peer and mate choice (Etcoff, 1999). Consequently, a large body of research has focused on the physical characteristics that render a face attractive. Some major factors that have been suggested are the averageness of a face (Langlois & Roggman, 1990; Rhodes & Tremewan, 1996), its symmetry (Rhodes, Proffitt, Grady, & Sumich, 1998; but see Zaidel & Deblieck, 2007) and familiarity (see, e.g., Peskin & Newell, 2004; Rhodes & Tremewan, 1996), and hormone-dependent facial features (see Thornhill & Gangestad, 1999, for a review). However, research has only recently begun to investigate the neuronal processes underlying the appraisal of facial attractiveness in the mind of the beholder.

Neuroimaging studies have reported several brain areas that are differentially responsive to attractive and nonattractive faces. Typically, reward- and emotion-related areas-such as the orbitofrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and amygdala-have been shown to be activated by facial attractiveness (Aharon et al., 2001; Kampe, Frith, Dolan, & Frith, 2001; Kranz & Ishai, 2006; Nakamura et al., 1998; O'Doherty et al., 2003; Winston, O'Doherty, Kilner, Perrett, & Dolan, 2007). These effects may be related to the aesthetic aspects of facial beauty, because they are independent of the gender of the viewers or of the persons depicted. In addition, a component of attractiveness due to sexual attraction or reproductive fitness has been suggested (see, e.g., Senior, 2003) that is sensitive to gender or sexual orientation. Across different imaging studies, the brain areas specifically responding to the facial attractiveness of potential mates are quite diverse, ranging from the superior temporal sulcus (O'Doherty et al., 2003) to the basal ganglia (specifically, nucleus accumbens; Aharon et al., 2001) to the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC; Kranz & Ishai, 2006). Interestingly, recent findings have demonstrated enhanced OFC activation to faces of potential partners, including same-sex mates in homosexual participants, which it has been suggested reflects the higher reward value of these faces, irrespective of their reproductive fitness (Ishai, 2007).

Although everyday experience suggests that the appraisal of attractiveness is a fairly rapid process, only a few objective data have been collected on this issue. A recent masking study by Olson and Marshuetz (2005) showed that attractiveness is perceived even if faces are exposed for only a very short time, suggesting that attractiveness is assessed rapidly and on the basis of minimal visual information. More direct evidence on the time course and locus of action of attractiveness may be gained from event-related brain potentials (ERPs). …

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