San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A beautiful solution

For most of us, perhaps the least comfortable stage of our life, barring a difficult pregnancy, is adolescence, when in preparation for parenthood our blood is supercharged with powerful hormones announcing the presence of the Life Force. All perceptions are in overdrive, inhibitions are minimized and we will not again be able to see the universe in a grain of sand until we can afford the hard drugs capable of duplicating the condition.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

As for myself, I clearly remember during adolescence falling in love several times a year, utterly convinced that my current heartthrob was the most beautiful, most desirable object in the cosmos. Fortunately, my parents recognized the early symptoms – bad poetry scribbled on discarded scraps of paper, loss of appetite and inattention to personal hygiene – and always contrived to separate us physically for the week or two necessary for a complete cure.

Somehow I survived into adulthood, though carrying with me a lasting desire to repeat the sensation of beauty experienced during my passion. So I traveled the globe in search of beauty, and it was only recently that I stumbled across a clue.

My wife and I found ourselves in a dirt-poor village in Outer Mongolia, sitting on a rough plank bench in a makeshift theater, waiting for the next act – perhaps the least promising location to find beauty. There was a faint scent of incense in the air, and suddenly there appeared on stage a young peasant girl playing the balalaika.

Her body was invisible under the voluminous shawls characteristic of the region, but her face was of such unearthly, indescribable beauty that I lost my breath and then burst into tears. In a flash I had my answer: Beauty is not prescriptive because it is an emotion, so here we had a prime example of the amygdala at work.

Memory is best described as a recapitulation of the original stimulus, triggered by a repeat of any other stimulus that occurred at the same time. The process of birth, when we must learn to breathe air for the first time or die, establishes forever the neural response for terror, and the subsequent connection to the nipple establishes forever the response for joy and relief, to be triggered by any subsequent sight of the undraped breast or, indeed, any similar curve. (Or, if we were bottle-fed, perhaps we shall become alcoholics.)

In my case, I was born in a primitive convent, surrounded by nuns, and I believe it was the simultaneous perception of wooden planks, voluminous garments and the smell of incense that set me off, idealizing a very ordinary peasant girl.

The amygdala is, literally, the nerve center of the emotions, intimately connected with the memory system and scarcely less closely with every other sensory system, so that some people smell fish frying when they get burned by a hot pot.

Thus, in the end, beauty is just intense joy, provoked by any related stimulus. And now you will appreciate why busty beauties are best for advertising almost anything.

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