Beauty is in the brain, not the beholder's eye. Just ask a baby

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Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder ­ but firmly lodged in the brain of even the tiniest babies, according to a study by child psychologists.

Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder ­ but firmly lodged in the brain of even the tiniest babies, according to a study by child psychologists.

Research shows that babies are born with a sense of beauty that develops in the womb as part of an innate ability to recognise human faces.

Tests on babies as young as a few hours old have shown they are not just able to distinguish between faces but show a definite preference.

Scientists believe this preference is largely genetically determined and may reflect the need for babies to be able to recognise human faces as soon as they are born.

Alan Slater, a developmental psychologist at Exeter University, said newborn babies were capable of quickly learning to recognise not only facial features but whether they are attractive or unattractive.

"If you show infants a few months old two faces they will spend more time looking at the more attractive face," he said.

"The notion was that this was some kind of prototype of the face, which was averaged from the various faces the infants have looked at over the first two or three months from birth.

"But in fact we find we get exactly the same effect with newborn infants, which is to say that newborn infants will look at the more attractive of two faces.

"This leads us to the conclusion that babies are born with a detailed representation of the face that allows them to detect and recognise faces," Dr Slater told the Science Festival in Exeter. "So attractiveness is not simply in the eye of the beholder, it's in the brain of the newborn infant right from the moment of birth, and possibly prior to birth."

The study used adults to grade a set of photographs of faces according to attractiveness. The scientists then showed pairs of faces deemed the most and the least attractive to a group of newborn babies.

Psychologists know that babies tend to look in the direction of what interests them most. Using this trait, the scientists demonstrated that even babies a few hours old have a preference for an attractive face.

Although it is known that babies are born with an ability to recognise human facial features, it is the first time that researchers have established that they prefer faces that adults also consider attractive.

Dr Slater believes the preference is linked with an evolutionary need for babies to be able to identify human faces as soon as they are born. Babies are known to be able to recognise their mother's face within 15 hours of birth, he said.

One explanation could be that the baby has an innate visual template of the human face based on a statistical average of facial features.

"If you average loads of faces then what happens is that the resulting prototype for average ­ and it is a statistical average rather than a face that looks average ­ the resulting face is actually an extremely attractive individual," Dr Slater said.

"My line of theorising is that evolution has built into the developing visual system some innate representation of the face which, to all intents and purposes, corresponds to a very attractive face," Dr Slater said. "They prefer to look at the attractive face because it most closely resembles the prototype ­ or the innate representation ­ that they have which tells them what is a face."

The fact that babies seem to like attractive faces does not alter their overriding interest in the face of their own mother, he said."All infants are enormously attracted to their mother and this is irrespective of her attractiveness. A lot of this is hardwired and you cannot get away from the hardwiring."

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