The answer is yes.
Sir Mix-a-lot liked big butts and he could not lie. Breast implants seem to have become as common a cosmetic procedure as contact lenses and braces used to be. And while women stress about the Photoshopping of already pin-thin models down to the bone and wonder what chance the average woman has against such exaggeration, we don’t exactly drench the average men in drool either. We revere the William H. Macy and Bo Hoskins types for their talent but save our swoons for the Colin Farrells and Brad Pitts.
According to some neuroscientists it’s instinct to look at a desirable characteristic and, when it proves rewarding, to "like it, love it, want some more of it." The unconscious thought seems to be “if big/ small/round/tall is good then bigger/ smaller/ rounder/taller is better.”
And that’s what we want to see, both in life and it’s representations.
Brad Pitt, William H. Macy, Collin Farrell and Bo Hoskins. Which one makes you drool?
“The principal of exaggeration is something that must be hardwired in the neural machinery of the visual pathways of the brains of every human being,” argues Dr. V.S. Ramachandran in the 2006 BBC documentary series "How Art Made the World." The series tries to explain why it is that the Greeks spent forever perfecting sculptural realism only to almost instantly abandon it for more exaggerated forms in no time flat. The attraction to exaggerated images, Dr. Ramachandran says, is universal. But it’s not just random characteristics — it’s specific things we like exaggerated, things that are important to us. And other animals do the same thing.
Behold The Power Of Cheese
According to Dr. Ramachandran it’s called “peak shift,” and rats give us a good idea of how it works. Rats are capable of learning the difference between a square and a rectangle via cheese. If you give cheese to a rat every time he picks a rectangle over a square soon he’ll pick the rectangle consistently: Behold The Power of Cheese.
This is where it gets interesting: once the rats associate the rectangle’s longer, more narrow shape with something yummy they will prefer ever-longer, skinnier rectangles every time they’re presented with one. If the longer, skinnier object bears fruit (or cheese) the rat seems to decide that the even longer, even skinnier object is going to be the portent of something even better.
Herring Gull Chicks seem to have the same idea. The beak of the mother gull is yellow with a single red mark and the chicks tap at it to be fed. When presented with a stick that was painted yellow with a single red mark they did the same thing; when the stick had three red marks they totally went bananas on it. More red, more fed, seemed to be the idea behind the instinct.
When we look at the red marks and rectangles of our own species|Lisa Rinna has since had her lips reduced.] — the characteristics we associate with sex, sensuality and perhaps subconsciously with reproductive health — the principal of exaggeration starts to explain everything from the lengths we go to appear fashionably beautiful to the slick artificiality of porn (well, of some porn). Professor Ramachandran talks about exaggeration in fine art but the principal can easily be transferred to fashion, pop culture and X-rated movies, all of which are representational and in all of which the principal of exaggeration is pretty clear. Pouty lips, for example, are a signal of sensuality but lately a number of actresses have lips that don’t appear bee stung as smacked-in-the-mouth-with-a-cricket-bat.
Vaginas in porn films started becoming so bald you could see the other actors reflected in them and in time Brazilian became a household world among regular people. It makes sense that we like our art and entertainment outsized: as Professor Ramachandran points out in the BBC documentary, “If art is about realism why do you need art? You can just go around looking at things.” What’s interesting is that we don’t just want the exaggeration on the canvas or the film but seek to ape it in real life as well.
Men do this outsizing and exaggerating, too, sometimes in a slightly different way. For example, some men see their car as an expression of their masculine appeal, which gave us the long, languorous Corvette in the 70’s, so it can’t be all bad. The idea got carried to such an extreme in the 00’s, though that we ended up with the Hummer, a vehicular eyesore so obese that if it were human it would be Gilbert Grape’s mom.
The Decline of Civilization or Traditional Course of Evolution?
It might seem to us like these extremes are a symptom of modern life: not so. An article titled “Exaggeration as an Aesthetic Factor,” appearing in Popular Science in 1896 pointed out the ways in which cultures all over the world hype the traits their group finds desirable. One great example is earlobes elongated by the wearing of ornaments: the more prosperous the person, the heavier the ornament hence the longer the earlobe. And author M.F. Regnault points out that the course of these exaggerations, as with breast or car size in our time, has a course to run: “A fashion modest in the beginning is made absurd by a continued course of exaggeration.”
So if you’re a sucker for boobs with the size and buoyancy of lifeboats, the gym rat physique or other exaggerated traits that other people think are shallow, you’re not shallow at all: you’re wired for exaggeration, in your hardware and your culture. Dr. Ramachandran, writing with Diane Rogers-Ramachandran in Scientific American in 2010, even thinks this principal of exaggeration could predict the course of certain evolutionary traits. We might one day, he says, see a gull with a larger or more exaggerated red mark on their beak.
If he’s right and humans follow this path as well — with taste dictating form — imagine what humans will look like in a few thousand years. Maybe one day we won’t need plastic surgeons: we’ll be born with time released-Botox baked right in.