Yet despite, or perhaps because of, this people find it damned difficult to construct new faces in their imagination. Even artists, who can create fantastic landscapes without equivalent in this world, often have trouble creating faces from scratch. I believe it says something profound that Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous painting, required a model. Now of course this is not a universal, there are some artists who can create somewhat realistic faces that they’ve never seen before (Police sketch artists make their money this way) but my point is that it’s difficult.
Here’s a thought experiment for you (Yes I know that thought experiments are an inherently flawed way to get any sort of interesting result, but if it was good enough for Galileo it’ll have to do for me.) Imagine a woman in a swimsuit (this experiment is targeted towards those with a preference for the female form. Fruits and straight women can modify it to their preferences.) Focus on her feet in your mind. Get a picture of them, from her toes up to about halfway on her shin. You can probably imagine them in a fair amount of detail, from whatever type of nail polish is your preference to the indentations and bulges around the ankle. Now slowly scroll up in your mind, passing over her knees and up her thighs. You still probably have a fair amount of resolution. Now keep going, past the camel toe, up over the belly (probably unrealistically flat, she sure as hell didn’t get THOSE abs in six minutes a day) past the swell of her breasts (She hasn’t had any work done, just naturally blessed) over the chest, beyond the shoulders, and now we’re at the neck. So far things have probably seemed decent, and we’ve had a fine old time of things.
Now let’s keep going, up to the chin, the lips, the cheeks, the eyes and eyebrows. Now we’ve got the whole face in view. What does it look like? If you’re anything like me, shoot yourself. No, no, wait that’s a whole different entry. If you’re anything like me it’s either cloudy and blank, unrealistic and unconvincing, or it belongs to some real female (unlike the knees and breasts.) Whether this is because we attend more to faces and thus get a greater sense of nuance from them, or just because the face is more complex than other body parts, but I think it’s important.
I think that the problems that humans have in generating representations of faces they’ve never seen help explain why people we have seen, either celebrities or in real life, pop up so often in fantasies. It’s not a complete explanation, sometimes you see somebody in real life and immediately start fantasizing about her, but I believe it to be an aspect. During masturbation most guys have a fantasy stable that they rely upon to help them get the job done (you know, when they need a face for whatever sordid and almost certainly illegal acts are going on in their cerebrums) If they could conjure up new, convincing, images that would perfectly suit their particular preferences, why would they need it? You could argue laziness, but I think that when it comes to sexual satisfaction men have proven very resourceful. Guys don’t end up in the emergency room with vacuum cleaners stuck to or pencil leads stuck up their hoohoos on account of being lazy. There’s some real experimentation going on there.
Now if my theory were just about fantasy it would be kind of silly. It’s like pondering over why rain falls or monkeys fling their dung. Can you figure it out? Yes. People have. Does it really matter? Nah. Rain’s still going to fall, monkeys are still going to fling dung. Guys are still going to think about Sarah Michelle Gellar’s boobs no matter how complicated a matrix of reasons behind it we develop.
I think the more interesting question is whether this has an influence on why people tend to pick mates based on physical characteristics rather than personality characteristics, even though the latter would seem a more promising criterion in some ways. For example there’s the cliché of the woman who wants to reform the handsome bad boy. Sure he drinks and is irresponsible and probably has a predilection towards cheating, but damned if he doesn’t look good in a leather jacket. This is opposed to the nerdy guy with the horribly trimmed goatee who might have much better personality characteristics. Well why would someone think that she can make Joe Cool into Joe Responsible but can’t convince Nerdley McChilds into Nerdley McPride. I think it might be, in part, because it’s easier to imagine Joe Cool going to work every morning and totally not making out with the skank in the stockroom, than to imagine Nerdley McChild’s personality in a remade body.
Now I’m not entirely ignorant. I understand that there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that. People are shallow, assholes attract women for a wide variety of reasons, at least with Joe Cool you can have some good sex in the meantime etc… I’m not positing this theory as a complete or even primary explanation, but I do think there is something to it. I think that part of the reason that people stay in bad relationships is that it’s easy to imagine a body and face behaving differently, but not so easy to conjure up a new potentially better package in their minds. I think that part of the reason that people obsess over fine physical specimens and how wonderful their lives would be if only they had him or her as their significant other, is because at that point the body is just a marionette that can be made to dance however one likes in the theatre of the mind.
It all comes back to lack of imagination. Celebrities and strangers are crutches for our inability to craft fantasy without certain base materials. It’s amazing how much of human activity is driven by human limitations. It’s one of the reasons that the Q character in Star Trek eventually lost his luster. With unlimited power comes zero responsibility and not all that much of interest. Still our limitations drive us to bad behavior, and I can’t help but think that being aware of why the mind works in certain ways helps one to overcome those limitations. Not that, as cerebral as I try to be, I don’t have scads of limitations myself, but it still seems to be a good theory. Of course believing in good theories is another problem with human cognition and has lead to some of the great atrocities in human history. That’s a subject for a different post.