Nature gives Cupid a hand by making us fall for people with symmetrical features, experts say

--------------

Believe in love at first sight? You should, according to a growing body of research.

But it may not be what you think - that hourglass figure, that towering stature, that sweet smile - that attracts you. In fact, it's the characteristics you aren't aware you see that make your heart go pitter-patter, new research suggests.A perfect body may be nice, but superficial traits that you easily see aren't as important as the cues your brain picks up subconsciously, according to research presented at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in Chicago last week.

Specifically, we're looking for symmetry in features that tells us a person's genetic makeup is complete and not defective, says Rowland Miller, a psychologist at Sam Houston State University and a leading researcher in the field of ``relationship science.'

Evolution has given each of us a subconscious picture of our own perception of the ideal that ``hits us on the head' as instant love, he avers.

Symmetry is a powerful turn-on because it's nature's way of signaling fertility, physical and mental health, hormonal function and even sexual prowess, says Dr. Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico, whose research has shown this is true for animals and insects as well as humans.

He's found that female scorpion flies prefer males with wings of the same length, and that female barn swallows swoon for males with symmetrical tails.

In humans, symmetry means eyes are evenly spaced from the nose, ears are the same size and distance from the chin, ankles and feet are the same size and distance from the knees. And yes, high cheekbones are sexy - if they're the same size and distance from the top, bottom and sides of a face.

Thornhill, who analyzes faces with a computer, says the ideal symmetrical male may be movie star Denzel Washington, with his perfectly proportioned facial features. Lyle Lovett, the singer, may be perceived to be less than ideal because he has a lopsided face, Thornhill says. And the reason most people see Mad magazine hero Alfred E. Neuman as ugly is that his face is asymmetrical.

``Symmetry is much more powerful and profound than almost anyone ever imagined,' Thornhill says, noting not all of the signals make their way to the conscious mind.

Miller's research shows men and women tend to be attracted to many of the same traits. In a recent study, when he asked 112 men to ``score' 112 women of all shapes and sizes, they rated the women almost identically, he says. The participants looked at real people's faces and bodies, and gave the most symmetrical women the highest scores.

The same was true in a similar number of women who rated ``symmetrical' men highest. But Miller's research suggested women were more likely than men to key into physical traits that suggest psychological qualities such as caring and sensitivity (a smile, for instance).

Each of us has genetic ``idiosyncrasies' that make some traits more important than others, Miller says. And those subtle differences apparently influence what we look for in a mate.

Thornhill says, for instance, that physical cues about a male's ability to nurture offspring have clearly been more important over the eons for some females than signals about his ability to bring home the bacon - or bison.

And it's also true that some men prefer high cheekbones to an hourglass figure, Thornhill says. This may be due to an instinctive knowledge that every individual possesses about how his or her own genes - and thus, strengths and weaknesses - would interact with those of a potential mate's.

What this research proves, Thornhill says, is that beauty really isn't skin-deep but bone-deep, because it's skeletal structure that determines symmetry.

He says even tiny variations from symmetry matter: Faces that seem symmetric to the naked eye may not be so when analyzed by computer. But the brain can pick up tiny variations subconsciously.

Computers aren't needed, of course, to detect signs of attractiveness like ``waist-to-hip ratio,' which measures the extent of a woman's curvy hips and a man's flat or bulging belly. Men's brains perceive a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 as ideal for a woman, meaning her waist is 70 percent the size of her hips. This signals she's optimally built for childbearing, Thornhill says.

Women's ideal for men is a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.9 --implying virility, strength and health. Anything less makes a male look feminine, and anything more hints he's headed for obesity and an early demise, Thornhill says.

``I've worked on all kinds of critters - insects, birds, humans - and symmetry is important in all cases,' he says. Among his most intriguing findings: Women whose partners were most symmetrical enjoyed a much higher frequency of orgasms than those with less symmetrical mates, and orgasms increase odds of conception.

People with the greatest facial symmetry have stronger immune systems and are healthier mentally and physically. And people with less facial symmetry suffer more from schizophrenia, manic depression and anxiety.

High testosterone levels in adolescent boys produce strong jaws and long chins, which females read as fertility markers. Likewise, high estrogen levels in females keep their jaws and faces small and their lips full, hints to males that those females are likely to be fertile and caring mothers, because estrogen causes good motherly instincts.

To be blunt, Thornhill and Miller agree, the characteristics men find attractive about women tend to be associated with procreation. Women are more attuned to cues that males may be good providers and protectors.

``Sexual attraction, the mating game, is a lot more complex than we ever thought,' Thornhill says. ``There is such a thing as 'love at first sight,' but it's going to take a long time to figure it out.'

(below is description of some chart material)

Chart:

FEATURES OF SEX APPEAL

Researchers say one subconscious key to physical attractiveness is symmetry. Humans and other species find individuals whose features are well-matched appealing. By drawing lines between paired features a right and left a and marking the midpoints in seven separate places, researchers get an index of asymmetry.

Denzel Washington: The actor's face is almost perfectly symmetrical, giving him a very low asymmetry score a 2.5 on a University of New Mexico (UNM) scale. This means the main features on the two sides of his face - eyes, pupils, ears, eyebrows, nostrils, cheekbones - are almost exactly the same size and distance from the bridge of the nose. Both sides of his mouth are also equidistant from the middle of his face. And his earlobes are the same distance from the top of his head and jaw.

Lyle Lovett: The singer-songwriter's face is very asymmetrical, giving him a very high asymmetry of 7 on the UNM index. His mouth is the most obvious feature: One side of his smile is lower than the other and his lips aren't perfectly even. His nostrils are also shaped differently, and the sides of his nose vary. Lovett does have some things going for him: He has a large lower face and a big chin and jaw - features linked to high testosterone levels, indicating virility and strength.

Amber Valletta: The model is a classic beauty for several reasons. Like Washington, her features are all virtually the same size and distance from the midpoint of her face (the bridge of her nose) - giving her a very low asymmetry score of 2 on the UNM scale. Her eyes and ears are evenly spaced and the same size. Her lips and nostrils are symmetrical, and her cheekbones are evenly shaped. In addition, her figure approaches the theoretical ideal waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 - meaning her waist is 70 percent the size of her hips, signaling she has the hormonal makeup optimal for childbearing.

Alfred E. Neuman: Quintessentially ugly, Mad magazine's cover boy is the ultimate in asymmetry - giving him a UNM rating of 13. Almost every feature is off. His nose is crooked. His nostrils are not the same size or even on the same plane. His eyes are just plain weird. And none of the features on the left side of his face match those on the right.

Chart: Asymmetry scores for other celebrities

Brad Pitt.............. 3

Val Kilmer..............3

Tom Cruise..............3

Paul Newman............ 3

Roseanne Barr.......... 3.5

Eleanor Roosevelt...... 5

Andrew Lloyd Webber.... 5

Danny DeVito............6.5

Load comments