Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
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A Face That Calms Me

By Ben Nadel on
Tags: Life

About four years ago, I randomly happened across the following photo on Flickr (chadmiller) and found it absolutely mesmerizing. I am not exactly sure why, but when I look at this photo I feel calm. I feel at peace. I have no idea who this woman is; but, something in her expression, or the composition of the portrait just puts me at ease.

 
 
 
 
 
 
The Face That Calms Me - But I'm Not Sure Why. 
 
 
 

View full size image here.

Every now and then I'll show this photo to a friend just to see what he or she thinks; and, for the most part, I apparently stand on my own. People neither find this photo particularly calming, nor do they find the woman in this photo to be especially attractive. Some even find this woman to be quite unattractive.

I think the woman in this photo is clearly gorgeous; but then again, I also find Frances McDormand and Helena Bonham Carter to be very attractive and I had a childhood crush on Katie Couric - so, take that as you will.

Perhaps it's the ambiguity of the expression on her face? I can't tell if she is happy or sad. Is that the faintest of smiles? Or, does she look out, feeling sorry for the subject of her gaze? Maybe what calms me is the fact that subconsciously, my brain has to drop what it's currently doing in an attempt to decode her facial features.

Perhaps it's the setting. As a child, I went to the beach a lot. Yet as an adult, I've only been back to the beach a handful of times. Seeing her on the beach might simply remind me of my carefree days in the sun. Back before email, before work, before bills, before responsibility, before lust, before heartache. Is it just the warmth of nostalgia?

Perhaps it's narcissistic? Is there something in her face that reminds me of Me? The narrow eyes, the slightly furrowed brow. This might be physical or mental; perhaps there is something that I see in the photo that reminds me of the way that I "think" about myself or my nature. Clark Valberg tells me that when I get defensive, I go "blank." Maybe I'm seeing an incarnation of that and it strikes a chord?

Perhaps it's the eye contact? While her face is somewhat askew, her eyes are looking straight out into the camera. The effect of this is such that no matter how you look at the photo, you perceive the eyes as looking right at you. Does this create an odd level of intimacy that focuses my mind?

I have no idea what it is. I was going through the backup drive (from my Windows machine) and came across the original download. I had some time to kill and figured I would spend some time reflecting on why the photo has had such an affect on me.

Tweet This Provocative thoughts by @BenNadel - A Face That Calms Me Thanks my man — you rock the party that rocks the body!


Reader Comments

Perhaps it's the emotion, memory, that is somehow tied by virtue of the surrrounding in the picture?

There's a family picture that I've looked at so many times throughout the years. The woman in the picture is my great-grand mother, and there isn't much I know about her. I don't even know who her real father was. The expression on her face is rather enigmatic. What would have happened had she been born to a well-to-do family in the North? What if she had decided to pass as many black people did back then? I wish I could talk with her, to find out what it was like for her. And in a way, she's the face of that family history I will never completely know. Anyway, here's the link to the picture.

http://www.lolajl.net/family/family1.html

For me I find people attractive based on whether or not we would get along with them. Which i can usually tell from looking at them. These people seem to fall outside of what 'most' people call as attractive, and as a result, like you my criteria has been called suspect by some. For example I find Miranda Otto attractive, but I think I would be in the minority of males to admit that (although I could be influenced by the fact that she is a fellow Aussie).
Maybe that you feel comfortable that you would get along with this mysterious woman and thats why you find her calming?

@Lola,

Very interesting photo. Definitely a mysterious look. Family history is so interesting; I know almost nothing about my family history past what I have seen with my two eyes. My grandmother passed a few weeks ago and my Uncle was telling me that my great (or great-great) grandfather (I think) was actually a Schindler Jew. It seems shocking that I had no idea.

@Richard,

That's a really interesting theory... and I like it! You might very well be onto something there.

She looks like she's not sure if her significant other will take a decent picture of her even with the super-expensive SLR camera he bought himself for Christmas.

You might want to study a bit on psychology and sociology. Both have a lot to say on how and why we interact with others as we do. While the people that do not find it calming disagree with you, you'll find that they also have pictures or memories which they find calming.

Freud says that you should study younger pictures of your 'mother figures' for some clues. The memories of the beach and setting may indeed chemically trigger the pathways which are also active in memories of your mother or other safe places/ people.

Who else do you know rests their chin on their hands? Who has hair like that.. or did? It could be any one or more elements of the photo which trigger brain pathways that are active when you feel safe and calm through a common third memory or state. Like hearing a song and smelling a certain smell can trigger lucid memories of a past time, old friend, or other past event.

IMO, memories are formed across many 'learned pathways' in our brains. Activating them for some other reason where the newly activated pathway group overlaps previous stored memories can trigger those previously stored memories/feelings accidentally. We simply don't pay much attention to it most of the time. Smelling fresh baked cookies on a cold winter evening while in wet clothes and taking off your boots could well trigger memories of childhood, or stick a song into your head from long ago. I suspect this picture is doing just such a thing as this.

Mr Z, for me, smelling pipe smoke brings back memories of my grandfather (the older boy in the picture I'd posted above). He was quite a character, with a wicked sense of humor who loved to tell stories while sitting low on his chair, with one leg draped over the armrest. He was a very clever man, he would pass for a Hispanic so he could get work in the racing community. I wish I'd had the foresight to record some of his stories, and I really regret that I had not been able to communicate with him fully due to my deafness.

So, everytime I smell pipe smoke, I expect him to pop up just around the corner.

I think you made a very astute observation - people tend to marry the person who is most like their parental figure who is the opposite sex, or the exact opposite personality. My husband and my father share many of the personal characteristics - a great sense of humor, being extroverts, and having a no-nonsense perspective, love of debate.

@Lola Lb
I have done 'personal' research for some years regarding human intelligence as an adjunct to my hobby of personal robotics. Studying a system when it is broken is the best way to learn about it when we cannot look at the deign documents. Fortunately, when you come down to it there is a wide spectrum of 'normal' for human minds. One might say that normal is simply 'not dead' but deviations from mean give us 'broken' systems to observe. We don't know how memories are actually stored/retrieved, but we can observe things that happen when 'oddities' occur. Observing twins and how they behave etc. I think memories are a composite sensory observation within our brains. That is each sense, physical and mental states, etc. are all part of what we call a memory. An emotional state can trigger a memory as an example. The registration of each state or mood or sensory input is layers across many others so a feeling of safety or happiness is essentially a set of 'learned pathways' in the mind. When enough of these learned pathways are activated at the same time we feel that 'learned state' and associate it with new memories as well as remember old ones from that state. It's complex, and at it's base works a lot like a Bing commercial where we ignore most of the overload of memories until one or more become too 'loud' to remember.

We 'like' things, people, places which in ways trigger the learned pathways for comfort or safety. IMO there is a different preference between them for men and women due to hormones. Just the same this mechanism causes all the variations of 'normal' and all the oddities that we observe and experience. I haven't quite managed an explanation for confidence but I suspect it may be the difference in how firmly pathways are learned. It is the pathways for comfort and safety which I believe give us addictive behaviors. Light up the right pathways and get a chemical reward.

This would work in all mammals as a way of helping to create safety and behaviors which repeat safety and lead to more of it. A survival mechanism which is allowed to go awry becomes an addiction or addictive behavior. Of course, that is all supposition by a rank amateur with little or no supporting evidence for it at this moment. The mammalian brain is a lot to study LOL

I am getting flashbacks from conversations we had on the last 3 road trips. I really don't get the Helena Bonham Carter thing. You do realize that not all British people as as hot and classy as me, right?

@Tomas,

Ha ha ha, how oddly specific :)

@Mr Z.,

Very interesting insight. I know exactly what you mean, especially about the post. Nothing comes to mind, but there is something about the pose that I find striking. Time to put my thinking cap on.

@Lola,

I have a bottle of cologne that my father used to use. He died like 5 years ago; but, every now and then, I'll just smell the bottle and it brings back all kinds of memories. I can't say that they necessarily "visual" memories; more like sense-memories (if that is even such a term).

@Mr Z.,

The mammalian brain is a lot to study

That it is!! But it is tremendously fascinating at the same time. I love reading books about decision making and randomness and behavioral economics. I wish I could internalize more than the faction of the material that I read.

@Simon,

It is true - you do set the bar pretty high... but she is hot. 'Nuff said.

@Yaron,

After watching the movie Hostel, which I can only assume is more "documentary" than "thriller", I'll definitely be limiting my backpack-clad searching of foreign countries :D

@Lyle,

Ha ha ha, how appropriate for the blog topic :) I always wondered what a "female Ben" would be like.

@Ben,

I'm trying to externalize as much as I can in a blog. Too much in my head and not enough written down to think it all through. Writing a comment on your blog inspired me to dust off an old blog I never did anything with. I am not trying to make anything of it, just a place to write down my thoughts and hopefully make them coherent in some way. If you are interested: http://techrails.blogspot.com/ - it's not much, just more of my rank amateur thoughts on the same subject.

The woman in the picture is wondering why isn't Ben Nadel near her in one of those roulette photos from the top header...

I'm with you Ben on the calming thought. I think for me its the expression. She has the sort of look that a concerned, good listener has. It's as if you are sharing something that is a serious situation for you and she is hurting with you. I think for all of us men, we want to be affirmed. The look that she has is an affirming, "I care how you feel" look.

my 2 cents...

I know this is kind of random, but yesterday, a rather old Cheerios commercial for multi-grain cheerios popped into my head. It's a weird dubbing of a British one; but, I always found the expression on the woman's face in the last moment of the commercial to be gorgeous.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iH3euZZutk

Ok, that was random. But, I figured this would be the one place I could share that without it seemingly toooootally weird :)

@Lola: That picture is extremely enticing...enticing isn't even the right word I am searching for...intriguing? At any rate, when I saw the photo you shared, I felt drawn to those people. The photo made you want to get to know them, made you wonder about the people in the picture.

@Ben: maybe that is what you are experiencing with the picture you shared in this blog that started the whole conversation to begin with...there is something about this woman that you want to get to know. Could also definitely be a combination of there being something familiar about her, which I think was mentioned in a previous comment. When I first saw the picture I was thinking it was the beach. It could also be that you find this woman intriguing on a different level and the picture holds mystique for you in that it makes you want to know more about her...her life...what more of her looks like, for example, her body. I'm not trying to be a perv, just examining out loud what could be the cause of the effect the picture has on you. I hope that word isn't going to get me marked as spam. :-) Anyway, I get off track again. Your last comment isn't so random and off the subject. :-) And in reference to the women you listed you find attractive, I can see all three of them as people the 'normal' guy would find attractive. I am more of an example, probably, of someone who finds things that are very different attractive. To give you my list so you can confirm the truth of my earlier statement, I find Uncle Kracker and Balzac extremely attractive, and as a kid, I had a crush on Mr. Clean. :-) So, as you can see, my crushes are much further outside the realm of what the 'normal' person would find attractive than yours are (maybe not the Uncle Kracker one, but definitely the other two...I think that can't really be argued)

Ben, I just noticed something about the picture. She has a slight furrow to her forehead, as if questioning what you are doing and thus lending the impression that you (the viewer) have a physical relationship to her. One that causes you to feel as though you are there with her and she is reacting to you.

@Mr. Z...I noticed the slight furrow to her forehead, but did not draw those links to it. I kind of get what you are saying and understand where you are coming from, but didn't quite take it that way. Maybe it causes her to look super-serious, and goes back to the narcisistic tendencies Ben mentioned and it reminds him of himself?

@Anna,

I can understand others not seeing it as I did. It took me weeks to see that. Suddenly I realized that her expression is begging interaction with the photographer. This was not posed, but something done on a whim. She remains aloof, yet inviting. An intriguing status whenever it is encountered. In many primates this can convey status. I believe that we are different from other apes only in our ability to verbalize. So, taken from the point of view of apes in a cage, what does it mean? Seems to me that there are several messages conveyed in this one picture. She neither ignores nor engages, but does not appear to be warding off social engagement. With that said, it seems impossible to know what her expression is without further social engagement. This is the hook of this picture. Such a piece of body language can relate to many people that we have known. Other clues in the photo would lead us to yet a smaller set of memories.

Just as you look at a dog and assess whether they are about to attack, you can look at this woman and assess social position and status. That we do not go through life doing this consciously does not mean that we don't do it. There was a paper released recently that studied whether smell associated with a person affected our perceptions of them - it seems to. Why would body language not do so also? Even very subtle body language from the most expressive part of our bodies should convey many messages at once. In most mammals, body language is very important. Why would it not be important to humans? My interpretation of her body language may be wrong, but that is what I see now after studying it. We, as humans, should naturally attach many things to any given expression of body language as we have learned over the years what such can mean and what we take it to mean. We have only to look at the many emoticans to see that we humans value such subtleties in more than a simple way.

Her body language and the environment express many things at the same time. It is not surprising then (IMO) that some should find it particularly evocative.

@Mr Z Studying about Human intelligence in robots is really great and I read an article about robots and the article depicted that robots will exceed human intelligence by the year 2030 according to the scientists. Integrated Force Control makes the robot very intelligent and makes the robot to handle the task similar to humans.