You speak about facial symmetry, selfies and how quickly we perceive attractiveness. Can you tell us a little more about what this is all about?
We all have differences in personal taste (some like blonde hair, others like dark eyes, some people love curls, others love facial stubble), but there are certain kinds of facial features that our brains will find attractive despite differences in personal taste, and one of these is facial symmetry. Judging how symmetrical somebody’s face is not a conscious process though. We don’t choose or intend to do it, and we are completely unaware that our brain is making this calculation, and research shows that individuals with more symmetrical faces are rated as being more attractive than others with less symmetrical physical traits. The interesting question here though, is why? Why do we view symmetrical faces as more attractive? The answer lies with evolution, life’s persistent longing for itself.
We have a primary purpose from the moment we are born: live long enough and reproduce, generate life beyond our own, ensuring that our genes are handed down to the next generation (I sometimes always find this a bit strange to think about…at 25 years old, I am usually thinking about where to buy a new mascara or hitting an upcoming deadline at college, rather than any deep rooted yearning to procreate, but hey, that’s science!).
In order to ensure that our genes will be passed down, we need to make sure that our offspring will be fit, healthy, and live long enough to reproduce themselves. So, it is important for us to find a fit and healthy partner with whom to produce offspring. Facial symmetry is one indication (although one of many) of a person’s health status. From the moment we are conceived, we are constantly under attack. Bacteria, viruses, and other environmental threats are at large and ready to hijack our immune systems…and our facial symmetry! For the most part, humans are designed to develop symmetrically, but individuals who are not able to withstand threats like viruses and disease (i.e. those with weaker immune systems) are less likely to develop symmetrical facial features. An example of this is in contracting the virus that causes chicken pox. As well as causing chicken pox, in some cases it can also infect the facial nerve causing the face to slightly droop slightly.
So, over thousands of years of human evolution, the brain became hardwired to perceive symmetry as an attractive facial feature because it indicates to us how capable a person’s immune systems is at fighting off infection and diseases (an important thing that a new born baby needs in order to survive).
The selfie explosion that has taken place all around the world means that now, as well as making quick symmetry calculations in our brain when we look at other people, we can now use this ability when we take a picture of ourselves, flip it around and look at it as if we were looking at another person on the street. What’s even better, some say, is that when we’re deciding on whether the selfie is a keeper or not, we can use apps and other technologies to manipulate the image, presenting a more attractive, more symmetrical version of ourselves to the online world, essentially saying ‘look at me, I’m a healthy catch ;)’
Your research lies in the broader area of Health Psychology…what area of this are you most passionate about?
Although I love catching up on the latest scientific research behind attractiveness and selfie taking, my real passion lies with learning about how people experience time differently and how this can affect the decisions they make (usually without their awareness). It’s one thing to know how to tell time, or how clocks work, but part of what makes us human is that we can perceive and experience time differently to other animals, and to one another. We can feel it moving fast, in slow motion, speeding up, slowing down, stretching, and for some, almost stopping completely. Our past experiences, present desires and future goals can all influence how we behave. For example, when it comes to school, some students are very focused on their future careers and often think about the kinds of things they would like to achieve in their adult lives. These students tend to recognize that getting high grades and performing well in other domains at school are essential to achieving their goals, and therefore spend extra time in their present lives with homework and studying. In psychology these students are considered to be future oriented. When it comes to health psychology, how we think about and experience time can also have a significant impact on how we behave. For example, we see that somebody who is very future oriented when it comes to their health would avoid tobacco smoking, make regular GP check-up appointments, eat a balanced diet, and exercise regularly because they are so focused on their future health. The opposite of this is present orientation. Research shows that a present oriented person is more like to binge drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, use drugs, and drive dangerously because they crave excitement and gratification in the present moment, rather than consider their future health. My research focuses on determining the best ways to measure someone’s time orientation, and then to determine the best ways to intervene and change a person’s time orientation, allowing them to make healthier choices, benefitting their future health.
Why are events like Science Week so important for Ireland today?
For so long, a rigid divide existed between scientists and…well…everyone else! For many people, science was considered inaccessible, a different language with complicated rules that didn’t mean much at all to our every-day lives. Events like Science Week are essential to bridging the gap between those who study science and those who don’t, between those who know about how science works and those who haven’t yet learned, between people who understand the methods and processes of science and those who question their results. But more importantly for me, events like Science Week could very well be the difference when it comes to the 15 year old student who is trying to decide on which subjects to study for the Leaving Cert and would like to choose chemistry (or physics or biology) but feel that they are not smart enough or that science is too difficult to learn. Science Week opens the doors to what science is truly all about: discovery, innovation, creativity, and producing reliable, worthwhile results that can improve people’s lives and contribute to our understanding of absolutely everything and anything. Science is not just for the most intelligent people in the entire world, it is not just for the privileged, and it is not just for men in shiny white coats. Science should be accessible to anybody who has an interest in how things work the way that they do, in why the earth moves, in the human body, in animal kingdoms, space-rockets, sounds, colours, volcanoes, millipedes, dinosaurs, brain development, disease, happiness…the list is endless!
What does it take to be a good science communicator and why is it a great skill to have?
For me, passion is the number one! Regardless of the type of communication (talking, singing, dancing, or other forms of artistic expression.) the message will always be more impactful and memorable if it is communicated with passion. Just like it is so easy to tell the difference between a fake smile and a real one, the audience can always tell whether the communicator truly cares about the subject they are discussing. Communicating a message with passion will determine whether or not the audience will remember your message an hour after the show. Then, with passion, comes creativity and excitement. A message communicated creatively will always get an audience excited! The ability to think outside of the box and find innovative ways to communicate a message will force an audience to think about your topic in a way that may not have before, again making them far more likely to remember it! I remember at the Cheltenham Science Festival last summer, Marty Jopson, on his quest to make science accessible to everybody, gave an extremely informative talk on the physics behind ‘boomerang-ing’, how they fly and return to the thrower (if thrown a certain way). Every few seconds Marty fired a bunch of boomerangs, all different colours and sizes, around the entire stadium (which filled over 800 people!) and had audience members fire them back. I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m at a science talk, in a giant tent, with boomerangs flying around all over the place!’ And as you can see, I’m still talking about it!!
I believe those who are skilled in effective science communication techniques have an obligation to their discipline and to the general public to communicate the latest discoveries and to share their knowledge and expertise with the world. Every year, millions are spent around the world funding scientific researchers to discover new and exciting information using reliable and valid methods. The scientific method is definite and clear, but it is my opinion that until recently we have been circumventing one of the most crucial final steps: sharing the results. Communicating the outcomes of scientific investigations should not be limited to communicating with other scientists in scientific journals and discipline specific academic conferences. Science is for everybody and it should be communicated to everybody so that people can determine for themselves fact from fiction, science from pseudoscience, and truth from lies. When we are all on the same page that is when we can form our own valid opinions, and make informed individual and collective decisions.