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The Happiness Connection  

The human brain can fill in what we don't see

Filling in the blanks

I had a strange experience this week. It’s one that I’m sure many people can relate to.

A little over a year ago, I had my first appointment with a man who’s become my favourite banking advisor - ever. Not only is he nice and fun to talk to, but he’s also been an invaluable support while I’ve been navigating my mom’s affairs.

This time, when he greeted me in the lobby I noticed he looked different but I couldn’t put my finger on the change. Had he shaved off a beard or mustache? It took me several minutes of staring at him across his desk before I realized, I was seeing his entire face for the very first time.

It surprised me to discover he didn’t look the way I’d expected him to. I wasn’t even aware that I’d created a preconceived idea of what his face would look like. But obviously I had. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so surprised at the reality of his appearance.

I love learning about the human mind, so I decided to dig a little deeper and find out what was going on in my head during this experience. After a little research, I discovered what’s known as amodal completion. This term describes your mind’s tendency to fill in any perceptual information that’s missing.

If you’re parked in front of another car and can only partially see the other vehicle, your brain makes up what the hidden portion looks like. It uses what it knows about cars in general to complete the picture.

When you look at your phone, your mind will amodally complete what the back side looks like. As it’s seen it before, it will use memories for completion purposes. You may not be aware of what’s happening, and in many cases, you don’t really care what your mind’s up to or how accurate the picture it’s completing is.

When I couldn’t see the lower part of Michael’s face, my mind filled in the features under the mask. As I’d never seen him without one, my brain used its general knowledge of facial features as a reference. This strategy meant it wasn’t very accurate. It took some time for me to reconcile the difference between my unconsciously perceived idea and reality.

Amodal completion isn’t reserved for visual stimuli. If you’re talking to someone on the street and an ambulance goes by with its siren on, you’ll complete what the other person said, even if their words didn’t reach your ears. This will also happen if you’re on the phone and can’t see their lips for visual cues.

During my research on amodal completion, I also uncovered a study that shows humans find faces to be more attractive when they have a medical mask on.

A racially diverse set of male and female faces were categorized by participants according to their perceived level of attractiveness. They were classified as average, less attractive, or more attractive. Medical masks were then digitally added to the images, and their attractiveness was assessed again.

Seventy percent of the faces (originally) judged as average were considered more attractive with a mask. All the faces in the less attractive group were rated higher with a mask.

Even the faces in the above average group were considered to be more attractive with a mask.

It might help to know what the human brain sees as attractive when it comes to faces. It leans towards symmetry, or faces where the sides mirror each other and features that are average in size and shape.

Perhaps we judge faces with masks as more beautiful because we can see the eyes, which tend to be symmetrical and we can’t see noses, mouths, and chins, which are more likely to be prominent or unusual in their size or shape.

Add to this the fact your mind tends to amodally complete in a positive way. It doesn’t think the nose under a mask has a huge pimple on it, or that the hidden chin is asymmetrical. It’s more likely to be imagining a better outcome under the mask than may actually exist.

It’s kind of reassuring to think that all those hours we spent behind our masks had an advantage. Our minds were enjoying being surrounded by an increase in perceived beauty. I’m going to remember that the next time I put on a mask.

You may not be able to see it, but I’ll be smiling.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.



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About the Author

Reen Rose is an experienced, informative, and engaging speaker, author, and educator. She has worked for over three decades in the world of education, teaching children and adults in Canada and England.

Research shows that happy people are better leaders, more successful, and healthier than their unhappy counterparts, and yet so many people still believe that happiness is a result of their circumstances.

Happiness is a choice. Reen’s presentations and workshops are designed to help you become robustly happy. This is her term for happiness that can withstand challenge and change.

Reen blends research-based expertise, storytelling, humour, and practical strategies to both inform and inspire. She is a Myers Briggs certified practitioner, a Microsoft Office certified trainer and a qualified and experienced teacher.

Email Reen at [email protected]

Check out her websites at www.ReenRose.com, or www.ModellingHappiness.com



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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