How fashion may transform your psychology, brain, genes and longevity

Photo by Yuuji —iStockphoto

When you think of fashion, you may immediately think of runways, models, and people who are invested in how they look. Yet, as a style of dress, fashion has a far reaching and transformative impact on what is going on in the “inside” of us, despite appearing on the “outside”.

The inside-outside connection: Say you put something on and look at yourself in a mirror. And say you like it. You immediately feel good. Your brain’s pleasure-generating systems are turned on. And immediately, what is on the outside slips it into your brain and body without your noticing it.

This same boundary dissolution applies when you see someone else whose clothing you like. Your brain’s visual centers light up, and the sensation activates your brain’s reward circuitry like the first flash of Christmas tree lights.

Of course, what goes on in the inside doesn't stop at “liking” something. You may also want it, buy it, and wear it. And when you do, the lights in your brain metaphorically stay on a little longer.

From lights to love and wellbeing: When you feel this rewarded, the impacts are not as superficial as you might think. In 2015, clinical psychologist Laura Veneroni and her colleagues explored whether adolescent cancer survivors could benefit from designing their own fashion show. The fashion project proved a fundamental resource in helping the young patients involved to regain a positive self-image and the feeling that they could take action, both on themselves and in their relations with others. They concluded, “Facilitating the experience of beauty may enable hope to withstand the anguish caused by disease.” In fact, in another study, cancer survivors had a very positive experience modeling as well. In a sense, they were modeling survivorship.

The precise power of beauty on the brain: Another way of talking about fashion is “aesthetic sentiment.” This mental capacity is different from “will” or “cognition” and it can be elicited by obvious or subtle stimuli. A red heel, a sparkling jewel, or the most unwearable spectacle of clothing may all evoke this sentiment. In online markets, clothing blows digital products, furniture and fitness products out of the water. In fact, the emotional effects of design have been used to reverse engineer what features should be part of clothing design. Called Kansei engineering, this method of design emphasizes emotional design.

When you respond emotionally to design, it impacts your brain, peripheral nervous system, endocrine system, external behaviour, and psychology. It’s pretty far reaching. And you can see this in brainwave patterns as well.

Both musical and visual beauty activate a region in the front and center of the brain. Called the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), it activates more, the greater your appreciation is. Another region to the front and side of the brain called the lateral OFC also activates to beauty. In fact, if you pass an electrical current through this region, you will think something is more beautiful. Indeed, beauty is in the brain of the beholder.

Not all beautiful things have the same effects. For example, one study showed that beautiful faces activated the ventral striatum, a collection of nerve cells deep in the brain, whereas beautiful art activates regions in the middle and front of the brain.

The dimensions of response are actually more far-reaching than this, activating sensation, perception, attention, reward, learning, memory, emotion, and decision-making centers in the brain too. Experiences of beauty can also be differently moving, and brain activations would be expected to be correspondingly different.

Implications: So, beauty impacts the brain—so what?

Many environmental stimuli impact the brain, and even your genes. When they are negative, they may even lock your genes, opening up pathways to cancer, heart disease, stroke and neurodegenerative disease.

In contrast, preliminary evidence does in fact show that self-pampering may decrease harmful emotions, that art may induce a feeling of wellbeing, and that feeling more beautiful may buffer against stress by increasing your self-esteem. In this sense, the positive effects of fashion, modeling, and beauty on the brain are promising possibilities that may mitigate the negative impact of certain stresses on your genes, brain and body.

By recognizing the connection between the inside and the outside, our quality and longevity in life may improve. Everything and everyone youconnect with in your daily life has a profound effect on what is going on inside you.

Harvard-trained Psychiatrist. Tech entrepreneur. Brain Researcher. Executive Coac. Author: Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, King T and the Gamma Troupe .

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