Why We All Should Have a Vain Brain

Photo by Camilla Ffrench, B&W Film

Photo by Camilla Ffrench, B&W Film

By Camilla Ffrench

You walk into the bathroom, turning your head to look in the mirror. For a brief moment, you look, not registering the person staring back at you. Before you even know what has happened, you recognize yourself: oh yeah, that's me.

I experienced this a few summers ago and probably never will again. I had just ended a two-week backpacking trip in which I lived in a tent, never entering a building or facility, never changing clothes or bathing. Not once did I think about how I looked, let alone see myself in the mirror.

We spend so much time in our daily lives looking at ourselves—from brief glimpses at our reflections several times a day to the ever-growing popularity of selfies and social media. Walking down the street, I know I'm not the only one who glances at their reflection in store-windows. Our self-perception is stressed in today's society, with emphasis on appearance through social media, fashion, marketing, and entertainment. Some people look in the mirror with distorted visions of physical flaws; they wake up in the morning and spend an hour choosing an outfit for the day to hide these insecurities. Yet, someone else may see them walking down the street and think, wow, they are so confident, I wish I could be like them. Not to say that caring about our appearances is entirely negative (this website has an entire section dedicated to fashion), but it does help once and a while to keep ourselves in check. Many emotional and social factors contribute to this perception, but there is another element: science. We only see ourselves through a lens or a reflection and due to the distortions of reflection and light perception, we will never know what we truly look like, or at least how others see us.

The experience of spending two weeks not seeing myself, and more importantly, not caring about my appearance, was liberating. It should be recognized that there were many other factors that contributed to my attitude, as it's not every day that I get to admire the Rocky Mountains or push my body to hike a summit; however, there were still the subtle differences in the subject of my thoughts that would change regardless. I often come back to the moment of looking in that bathroom mirror because it was so symbolic. I like to think that for that brief moment, I saw myself through the eyes of those around me. It made me wonder: did I? If you spend enough time not seeing yourself, can you gain a new perspective? Unfortunately, reflections and cameras are unavoidable in my everyday life (could any of us every really give up Snapchat?), so with a different approach, I set out on a task to discover the difference between my self-perception and how others perceive me.

I first approached this question just as I would any other: Google. An article from Psychology Today caught my eye, mentioning a word unknown to me: metaperceptions, or our ideas of what others think of us. The author argues that our metaperceptions are fairly accurate, and the way we want to be perceived is almost always the impression we make. People who are more physically aware often control their impression and self-perception can be more accurate. As I have noticed, an entire day can change for me based on what I am wearing. If I wake up in the morning and put on an outfit I like, I am more confident and automatically have a better day. I used to think I didn’t care about fashion or clothing, but in truth, I was more self-conscious about my appearance when I didn’t put in the initial effort. Now, when I feel confident in my appearance, it leaves room for more important thoughts and positivity. On these days, I feel as if I make a better impression on others.

In a A Mind of its Own by Cordelia Fine, the first chapter is titled “The Vain Brain,” which surprised me because when I first thought of my question, I assumed our self-perceptions would be degrading, due to insecurities. This assumption was only reiterated by a Dove commercial that came out a few years ago. The company released a series of ads and a video online promoting beauty and self-confidence. A group of women described themselves to a sketch artist behind a curtain. Then, acquaintances of the women described them to the same artist. At the end of the video, a naturally-lit loft is filled with these hanging sketches, the self-described ones side by side with the others. The women then walk in, gasping at the drastic difference in the sketches, noticing how they pointed out every little flaw in themselves. Although this video is heartwarming (and somehow effectively sells shower products), there seems to be exaggeration. Scientifically, we want to keep our egos satisfied, and our brains seem to glorify our own visions of ourselves. In order to keep our bodies healthy and alive, our brains must keep our egos happy. Most people subconsciously make small excuses to make themselves feel better in order to prevent states such as depression. This emotional distortion expresses itself the same physically: our brain shapes our perception to be more attractive. Fine writes that the brain even goes as far as to “consider the letters that appear in your name to be more attractive than those that don’t."

Perception is also influenced by our surroundings. Oftentimes if we are surrounded by people we deem more attractive, we view ourselves as unattractive, and vice versa. "If you think about it, we really couldn't evaluate ourselves without some form of comparison," says Hart Blanton, a Ph.D. of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an interview. "If I say that I am short or tall or fast or slow, these evaluations have to be made in relation to some standard or another. More often than not that standard is other people, and so this form of comparison comes up automatically." Our confidence may be bogged down or boosted based on those around us, and it may influence our social circles. People who are insecure in their appearances may enjoy the feeling of surrounding themselves with people they deem less attractive—often subconsciously. Just as I am, you may be frustrated at the prospect of such a vain brain, however, these positive illusions are essential, “they keep your head high and your heart out of your boots. They keep you from standing atop railway bridges gazing contemplatively at approaching trains. Without a little deluded optimism, your immune system begins to wonder if it’s worth the effort of keeping you alive," Fine tells us.

I interviewed Eline Kupers, a graduate student at NYU, hoping to get a solid explanation of what happens in the brain between the formation of electrical impulses to the formation of a thought. The conversation deepened my understanding of our brain's mechanisms, yet I didn't get the exact information for which I was looking. Although I still have no answer, it is comforting to know that most everyone else in the field of psychology and the rest of science also has no idea. This answer—or lack thereof—may be more helpful, however, because I can focus on the social factors that go into influencing perception, acknowledging that all of this “influence” occurs in the big black box in our mind. Amongst the bias of image perception, how can it be further biased through social ideas, values, and preconceptions?

To explore this question, I decided to turn to my peers.

Beginning with an online interest form on Facebook with the promise of homemade baked goods and soon had over eighty potential test subjects. My study consisted of two phases: the self-description and the description given by a person with whom they were not acquainted. First, students submitted a list of physical attributes they would use to describe themselves. Then, I matched them up with students they didn’t recognize by name, with whom they met briefly before submitting a description of the other person.

As I read through the self-descriptions, I could envision many of the people, the descriptions of face shape, hair color, and defining characteristics painting a picture in my mind. They were mostly neutral, meaning people avoided subjective words such as “ugly” or “pretty.” When it comes to basic descriptions, people see themselves the same way others see them—which is logical. It seems to be as if perception only varies when it gets down to opinion, generally based on personality or popularity.

Most of the self-descriptions were more detailed than those done by others. In one case, a participant described themselves as having “blue eyes," compared to the "bright eyes" which they were described to have by the acquaintance. People we briefly meet don't spend time to study the details of our face, but instead remember the general picture. They try to pinpoint a personality based on an impression— a natural instinct that comes with judgment.

Another result reiterated the idea of the control we have over the impression we make. One participant noted in her self-description, “I will note that my eyeliner is often really great," a sign of self-confidence and an effort into her appearance. (Note that this girl always does have bomb makeup looks.) This was reflected in the impression they made on the stranger, who described her “glittery, well-done makeup." The effort we put into our appearance both physically and emotionally greatly affects the way others perceive us. Now that this is more clear to me, I find it reassuring that I can have more control over my impression.

When I started this research, I was subconsciously hoping I would find an answer that said we perceive ourselves as much less attractive than we actually are; a hope rooted in the natural vanity of our brains. I was searching for an answer to please my ego even more. The truth is, it seems as if there is very little difference when it comes down to it. Perception is dependent on the situation, the people, and the time, but the truth is, I will always be a tall girl with curly brown hair and brown eyes—that much will never change. Images are biased by nature when captured through the lens of a camera or in a reflection, but not to the extent that one becomes unrecognizable.

Instead of worrying about the way others perceive us, we should care about how we want to look, and what impression we want to make. A cheesy romantic quote from the otherwise sci-fi TV show Doctor Who (forever a favorite), describes this effect in a memorable scene: “You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful and then you actually talk to them and five minutes later they’re as dull as a brick? Then there’s other people, when you meet them you think, ‘Not bad. They’re okay.’ And then you get to know them and… and their face just sort of becomes them. Like their personality is written all over it. And they just turn into something so beautiful."