Photographed by Ryan Koopmans.
It's no secret that pretty people tend to have an advantage over the rest of us. In fact, research has repeatedly demonstrated that humans who don't conform to a near-universal ideal of facial attractiveness are treated more poorly than their "beautiful" counterparts. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes some sense; a beautiful face in a potential mate might indicate healthiness or strength. One recent study concluded that we are drawn to pretty faces because they communicate friendliness.
A new study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, suggests that beauty actually activates the reward circuits of the human brain in the same way as some drugs. Specifically, the study's researchers looked at μ-opioid receptors, the same receptors activated by morphine and heroin. Those receptors also happens to play an important role in feelings of bonding and attachment. If they were artificially stimulated by drugs, would pretty faces look even prettier?
The researchers studied 30 heterosexual males who used computers to rate female faces as attractive or not. Part of the group was given morphine, while another part was given an opioid receptor suppressant called naltrexone; the rest of the group was given a placebo. The morphine group did indeed give the most objectively attractive faces a higher average rating — and also spent more time looking at those faces — while the naltrexone group did the opposite.
But, why would our brains reward us for looking at pretty faces? The study indicates that, evolutionarily speaking, an attractive face is more valuable, and thus we might have built-in biochemical motivation to like individuals with those faces.