Beauty may be skin deep, but the response to an enchantress—such as 1940s film star Veronica Lake, above—runs all the way into the brain. Beautiful faces may be downright addictive, according to neuroscientists at Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital.
The researchers recruited groups of heterosexual men in their twenties and thirties and showed them a mix of male and female faces flashed briefly on a computer screen. The participants could keep a face visible longer by pressing a button on a keyboard, something they did repeatedly when they got to a picture of an attractive female. "These guys were pressing the bar on average 6,000 times over 40 minutes," says Hans Breiter, who led the study. "It was amazing, considering they were just photographs—it's not as if there were beautiful women waiting for them outside." A concurrent brain-scan study showed that female faces trigger the same brain regions activated by food and cocaine. Handsome male faces provoked an opposite effect. "There was a definite aversive response, similar to the one you see when you burn your hand," Breiter says. He attributes these responses to motivation circuitry in the brain that regards beautiful females as rewards and handsome males as competition. "The response happens in a primitive part of the brain that's descended from the lizard. Thankfully, we also possess higher brain regions that can regulate that response," he says.