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Aesthetic: Our Second Nature

We are visual creatures: 50% of our higher mental processing is visual

Ronquillo, F. (2019). Lovebirth. Meyer Gallery [Painting]

Close your eyes and try to imagine that you are in the best place of your life. It can be anywhere you want: A place you've been before or a place you'd like to be. Got it? Ok. Now let's visualize some details of that place: What is the landscape like? Are you alone or with those people you like so much? Are the smells, sounds and colors of the place pleasant? Are there attractive animals? Do you hear birds singing or see horses trotting? Doesn't it feel good to be in a place full of people and things you like?

Now we can understand a little more about the following:

"Landscapes that are unpeopled are more easily neglected and unprotected" (Vileisis, A. 1997). Doing away with swamps, for example, is one of the reasons why it is not easy to dispel fires.

"Ugly animals raise less money and their habitats are destroyed more quickly than that of beautiful animals."

"This laundry detergent, which leaves our clothes radiant, soft and smelling like new, uses an optical brightener, toxic for the planet, but which leaves our clothes dreamy.

. . .

Why are we so addicted to aesthetics?

Said Aristotle one day, "We know it when we see it." And Aristotle was right. Because, first of all, we are visual beings. Since we are born and interact with people and things in the world, we see clues, data, that tell us if what we have in front of us is dangerous or not, if we should approach or move away. And that is how beauty was linked to goodness, intelligence, purity and an endless number of positive attributes. While ugliness was linked to evil, defect, danger and countless others.

Dr. Nancy Etcoff, in her book "Survival of the Prettiest", explains that we are born with an innate sensor to detect beauty. The results of her experiments with parents and children showed that those children who were born beautiful received, from their caregivers, more time in their arms, more cuddles, compliments, compliments and even more food than those children who were not so beautiful. And he also found that the reverse was true, that these children spent more time looking at, contemplating, photographs of beautiful faces and spent significantly less time with, and even ignored, the faces of not-so-pretty people.

Physical attractiveness, in particular, says Etcoff, is a biological tool that nature bestows on a few so that when they come into the world, they have a better chance of getting the attention and care so necessary for survival.

Dr. Samir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, has discovered that whenever we see something beautiful, a part of the brain, called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, lights up. This happens to us regardless of what we are thinking. "We know what we like, we just don't know that we know it", Zeki said, (2012).

UCL Minds Lunch Hour Lectures. 27 February 2017.The Neurobiology of Beauty

We spend 80% of our lives making assessments and judgments, about aesthetics, judging the beauty and ugliness of the world.

We are artistic consumers with innate needs for aesthetic satisfaction, some justify themselves. What to wear, how to style our hair, what to eat, what music to listen to. If we like the dog of the neighbour on the fifth floor, or just the neighbour, if today I want to wear pants, skirt or dress, the model of cell phone I want to have, that place I will never go back to for a vacation, who we like on Tinder and who we don't. Am I more of a dog or a cat, mountain or sea? What music turns me on, and which one am I anti?

. . .

When beauty doesn't need explanations

Yes, you've already seen it: Aesthetics is what we see, and it's not the most ethical thing on the planet. I don't know why so many people, at this point, still want to think that everything natural is synonymous with benignity, gentleness, indulgence, honesty, or any other synonym that is attractive to refer to something good.

In the aesthetic world there are many rules that are, purely and exclusively, biological, natural, and this, for science, is not synonymous with ethics.

The beautiful is beautiful to fulfill an ancestral purpose. Its objective: Survival and reproduction. Nothing else. And nothing less, of course.

Daniel Christian Wahl. 11 January, 2019. David Orr Interview: Ecological design and the redesign of the human presence on Earth (2006).

. . .

When beauty is in the explanations

Too serious for a wedding and too smiling for a wake.

We all know that we can also see something as beautiful, pleasant, appetizing, and a lot of other things, if we have been taught to see it that way.

This system of processing information, of labeling something as positive or negative because of its appearance, is called top-down processing. It's about how context, expectations, the knowledge we have about the world, our life experiences, make us see things or people as beautiful/pleasant, or not. A pastel sweater, over the shoulders and tied around the neck of a golfer, can only be pleasing to those who have been taught to see it that way. Same with tattoos on others, isn't it?

This same visual information processing system is responsible for the famous habituation. After a while, those things or people, which blew our minds because of their beauty, lose their attractiveness because our visual sensors got used to those stimuli and stopped sending signals to our brain. We are no longer attracted to them.

Ronquillo, F. (2016). Psyche with Blindfold and Tulip. Fatima Ronquillo's portfolio [Painting]

Perhaps the frivolity to which the subject of aesthetics has always been linked (because it is basically about subjective, hedonistic criteria, about whether we like something or not and not so much about whether it is good/useful/ethical) is what has fed, for so long, the idea that it is a minor issue. Or maybe, aesthetics as a system, does not have a consolidated capital of values that makes us think that we can survive without giving it the real importance that the subject deserves.

But, as we said before, we are a machine for producing aesthetic judgments. Aesthetics is our second nature. We have automatic, biological sensors that are activated as soon as they perceive beauty. Because we get tired of what we like, because we love ourselves and reject ourselves for what we like. Because we are going to let ourselves die and we are going to extinguish a planet, but that yes, with shiny t-shirts, a dream house and a movie vacation. Because of those thousands of "insignificant" aesthetic decisions of our daily life.

The social sciences have tired of demonstrating how the halo effect, the cognitive bias about beauty, plays a role in getting into prison: less guilt for beautiful people.

However, Zeki said, our beauty sensors are also activated in the face of noble causes. Sure, but with a caveat: They work only in those people who have been taught to see beauty in nobility.

Clearly, therefore, we have two options: The first one, to stay with the pure and hard beauty, hyperattractive, 100% effective and amoral that makes us turn our heads or give like, even if we are thinking about something else; the second one, to try to reduce that famous gap between biological aesthetics (automatic) and ethical aesthetics (contextual). And so, in the process, we save the planet. Because we do. Because our mind is also attracted to, likes, good causes. We are also wired to appreciate beauty in goodness, ethics and coherence. I think this last option would be something like killing two birds with one stone, wouldn't it? Good and beautiful has never been closer.

Let's not continue to minimize the issue. We don't have much time left.

Ronquillo, F. (2016). Flora in the desert. Fatima Ronquillo's portfolio [Painting].


  • Aesthetic Judgment (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). (2019, January 28). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • Attractive People Get Unfair Advantages at Work. AI Can Help. (2019, October 31). Harvard Business Review., R. A. J. (1998, April 1). Review of ' Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands' Smithsonian Magazine.

  • Cherry, K. (2020, July 19). How the Halo Effect Influences the Way We Perceive Attractive People. Verywell Mind.

  • Hill, C. (2019, July 2). Environmental Impacts of Detergent. Sciencing.

  • Mizrahi, A. (2012). Saito, Yuriko, Everyday Aesthetics. Philosophy Notebooks. Autonomous University of Barcelona

  • Neural Correlates of the Experience of Beauty, Including Mathematical Beauty | Professor Semir Zeki. (2015, December 9). YouTube.

  • Semir Zeki - Neuroaesthetics: How the Brain Explains Art. (2021, April 21). YouTube. Power of Beauty: Survival of the Prettiest [part 1]. (2012, April 17). YouTube.


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María José Puebla

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