Is Beauty Symmetry?

In a striking Radiolab video titled Symmetry, a simple split screen forces us to contemplate opposites in the same frame. A cat licks its lips while a mouse busily paws its own face. Half of one screen is a close-up of a little girl’s face and the other half a boy’s. A newborn bawls lustily in one-half while life ebbs away in silence for an old timer in the other one. Two glasses with different shapes hold exactly the same level of water. A taxi navigates the traffic in an urban scene while a pickup truck hits the dirt trail. A little girl breaks into peals of laughter while a boy cries. We’ve seen the jump cut, where two scenes get linked as a narrative by simply following the other and creating a context. A well-fed boy eating an ice cream cone followed by a starving child in Somalia makes a villain out of the child eating ice cream. But here, seeing two stark and contrasting images right next to each other has a beautiful and an unsettling effect. Especially since they span two ends of the spectrum.

Why is symmetry so important to us? In this video from Discovery lies a possible explanation. The human foetus is designed to grow in equal halves around the central axis of the spine. But small genetic imperfections can cause changes in the alignment and create differences that manifest themselves in our features. In an experiment, a researcher made tiny modifications to the same face to make the subjects’ faces more symmetrical. She then placed the original and the modified ones next to each other as posters on a wall and asked college students to rate the better looking one, saying they were twins. Invariably, people chose the more symmetrical face, drawn unconsciously to it.

Denzel Washington, whose face follows perfectly symmetrical features is rated to be among the best looking actors. So is Aishwarya Rai. But there’s more to beauty than just perfect halves transposed on one another. The Radiolab video forces us to contemplate it. It puts not just features next to each other but the extremes of our emotions and our deepest desires. Comfort next to discomfort. Pleasure next to pain. Old age next to infancy. Death next to life. And that is the reason it resonates. Playing off one against the other. It’s that mixture of sweetness and sadness that makes us question what beauty and life are all about. Transient, yet permanent. And one without the other is incomplete.