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NMSU professor studies our attraction to beauty

With a camera crew filming his every move, Andrew Walch, a student of New Mexico State University psychology professor Victor Johnston, recently worked through a computer program designed to produce Walch's version of the ultimately beautiful feminine face.



NMSU psychology professor Victor Johnston explains the operation of a computer program he has designed to study his test subjects' perceptions of beauty while being videotaped for a Discovery Channel television production titled "Survival of the Prettiest." The show is scheduled to air June 25, producer Debbie LaPensee said. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

The camera crew was on NMSU's campus Jan. 18 filming part of a program titled "Survival of the Prettiest," scheduled to air on the Discovery Channel June 25, its producer, Debbie LaPensee, said.

Based on a book of the same name by Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff, the program will include an interview with Johnston and a demonstration of two computer programs he has designed to test subjects' perceptions about appearances.

"Obviously he has done some remarkable work and we wanted him to be part of the show," LaPensee said of Johnston, adding that the NMSU professor is one of several authorities Etcoff mentions when discussing the scientific work done on the basis of our perceptions of beauty.

It is the computer programs that have attracted the most public attention to Johnston's work. One of them uses what he calls a "genetic algorithm," so that subjects like Walch can begin with a series of random faces and, by picking features they find the most attractive, evolve a final "most beautiful" face by "breeding" faces over a series of "generations." The activity mimics, in an oversimplified manner, the way humans (consciously or unconsciously) select for features they find the most attractive, Johnston said.

The second computer program allows users to transform, or "morph," a face, moving from a highly masculine male face to a highly feminine female face. Using the program and a series of questionnaires, Johnston and his graduate students study their subjects' attitudes about appearance. They've already discovered, for example, that people from all over the world zero in on the same characteristics of feminine beauty, no matter what local features may also be included in their assessments. Johnston said the features, such as large eyes, full lips and a delicate chin, are signs of fertility that signal a woman is a good prospect for conceiving and bearing healthy children.

Using the same techniques, Johnston and his students have found that women identify one set of male faces as desirable at one stage of their fertility cycles, but pick a slightly different set of faces at another stage of their cycles. They also select different males for short- and long-term mates. Some of his students also plan to study the facial preferences of gay women, women past menopause and women taking birth control pills. (Men, Johnston noted wryly, tend to prefer the same 25-year-old face no matter how old they are.)

His studies of our attitudes toward beauty fascinate us because we've all experienced finding someone exceptionally attractive, but, in terms of understanding human consciousness, this part of his work is really only the tip of the iceberg, Johnston said.

In his 1999 book "Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions," Johnston argues that all human perceptions and emotions have evolved to help us survive and perpetuate our genes. We see green, for example, because human beings are daytime animals that depend on a food chain in which green plants can be food, not because "green" really exists outside of our brains. We taste what we do, because some tastes indicate healthful nutrition, while others indicate poison, not because sugar molecules have a taste of their own. And we feel what we do because each of our emotions plays, or has played, a role in the survival of our genes, he writes.

"Human feelings are the bridge between our earlier hunter- gatherer selves and 21st century humans, what I call in my book 'the screams and whispers of the past,'" he said.

He said his next area of study might be another "scream and whisper of the past" -- jealousy.

"Jealousy is a good topic. Men and women have predictably different triggers for jealousy -- and those differences are testable," he said.

First photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/johnston.jpg.
CUTLINE: NMSU psychology professor Victor Johnston explains the operation of a computer program he has designed to study his test subjects' perceptions of beauty while being videotaped for a Discovery Channel television production titled "Survival of the Prettiest." The show is scheduled to air June 25, producer Debbie LaPensee said. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Second photo below is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/morph.jpg.
CUTLINE: These photos represent the same face at different stages of a "morphing" computer program designed by NMSU professor Victor Johnston. Moving from left to right, the photos show the face changing from "high testosterone male" to "high estrogen female." Johnston uses the program to study his subjects' reactions to appearances. (NMSU photos by Meghan Dallin)

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Jack King
Jan. 30, 2001