Why good looks look good
The article “It’s written all over your face” (SN: 1/17/09, p. 24) made me recall another article (a couple of years ago, I think!) describing the work of researchers investigating an apparent human, obsessive need to identify patterns in our environment. The scientists studied stockbrokers with and without a specific type of brain injury. The results led the researchers to conjecture that this obsession is hardwired into our brains at a very basic, primitive level. Their thinking was that perhaps our pre-cognitive ancestors developed this obsession as a way of locating others of their species in the chaotic wilderness. Campsites, etc., brought an orderliness and organization to the wild, so if you observed a pattern, others like you might be nearby.

I wonder if the authors of the face studies have considered the possibility that the preference for symmetry in the human face has nothing at all to do with selecting the best mate (conferring some sort of genetic advantage, such as a better immune system), but rather, it just satisfies this deep-seated need to find a pattern. With this anxiety thus removed, we become more comfortable with the symmetric face, setting off that cascade of chemicals associated with finding something attractive. From there we then begin to observe other traits that lead us to selecting an ideal mate. If the face is not symmetrical, perhaps we all begin to subconsciously obsess with trying to fix it and focus too much on the unique features, making us feel uncomfortable. Thanks for many thought-provoking, accessible articles. Neal Cox , Lake Oswego, Ore.

Psychologist Anthony Little of the University of Stirling responds: “The question is interesting and in fact echoes many previous researchers’ beliefs about symmetry. Older theories suggested we prefer symmetry because the human visual system is itself symmetric and so symmetric images are easier to process, or because there is redundant information in symmetric images, making them easier to process (similar to what the reader suggests as finding a pattern). However, one of my own studies neatly demonstrates that this reason can’t explain face symmetry preferences: Symmetry is preferred in upright faces and not in inverted faces. Such upside-down images contain the same pattern to be found, and yet they aren’t preferred. This isn’t direct evidence for the mate-choice view but suggests there is something special about symmetry preferences that is specific to upright faces and not to symmetric patterns in general.”

Regarding “It’s written all over your face,” OK, here’s the thing: We don’t choose mates based on attractiveness (otherwise I’d still be single). We choose someone to partner with us. If we are needy, we seek caregivers; if we are familiar with addicts, we choose one (or more). Mutual interests, resemblances to first caregivers/parents/teachers, common life experiences, goals and outlooks all weigh in. This article could have been titled simply, “Measuring beauty.” Still, good material, and thanks for the pictorial examples — I’m a visual learner.
O. Daniel Miller, Portland, Ore.

Dolphin reader
“Dolphins wield tools of the sea” (SN: 1/3/09, p. 13) reminded me of a 2001 book called To Touch a Wild Dolphin by Rachel Smolker. She, my nephew Andrew Richards and others observed and reported on the dolphin-sponge behavior in Shark Bay in Western Australia. I highly recommend the book.

L.C. Thompson , Phoenix, Ariz.