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Omne Trium Perfectum
Three may really be the charm.
By: Steven Dayan, MD
In Kabbala philosophy the number three signifies harmony. To the Chinese, the number three is considered lucky. And in Christian lore the number three represents divine wholeness, completeness, and perfection, hence the Latin phrase Omne Trium Perfectum: everything that is three is perfect. Three also has a practical significance in a modern world and in particular to students of aesthetics. It starts first by understanding the “Rule of Three,” an intuitive concept illustrating how and why packets of information are preferred when they are delivered within a natural cadence of three notes.
Three is the least number of individual entities necessary to form a pattern, and as any medical student can attest, information is better digested and retained when it is placed in a pattern. The pattern of threes, though, is known in all fields from writing to advertising, public service announcements to sporting events, and stand-up comedy to deducting reasoning. The rule of three is ever present for everyone, everywhere, every day.
Literature. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “Blood, sweat, and tears,” “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
Fairytales. Three blind mice, Three little bears, Three little pigs.
Music. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” Mozart’s Magic Flute, threaded with patterns of three.1
Public service announcements. “Stop, look, and listen,” “Stop, drop, and roll,” 9-1-1.
Science. Airway, Breathing, Circulation; Past, Present, Future; Id, Ego, Superego
Sports. Three strikes in baseball; three downs and out in football; Gold, Silver, and Bronze.
Marketing/Advertising. Location, location, location; The iPhone introduced as three products in one: an iPod, phone, and internet device; iPad 2 introduced as “thinner, lighter, and faster.”
Comedy. “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria,” “A Scot, Irishman, and Englishman enter a bar…,” “The giants, tigers, and teamsters.”
Religion. Mind, body, and spirit; Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva
The neuro-psychological conventional wisdoms support that information absorbed within a pattern is less taxing on the brain. The neural circuits don’t have to work as hard to retain the learned material. Less thinking, less energy, and less Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is expended. All living species tend to favor the pathway of least resistance, conserving energy whenever possible. And as much as this hypothesis is intuitive, the science is hazy at best. Therefore, perhaps there is more to the number three. Allow me to offer another perspective, a journey in logical reasoning revealing the everyday benefit of the number three in communication, ideation, and aesthetics.
It starts at the very beginning. Three, a number pregnant with potential, is Mother Nature’s numerical manifestation for fertility. Fertility, both figuratively and literally.
Figuratively. Let me draw your attention to the two points of a triangle base that unify to a single apex, out of two you get one. Mother/Father, Child. A triangle thusly and cogently stands as a symbol for fertility.
The triangle’s association with fertility has repeated relevancy in gender designation. A pointed down triangle is the international feminine symbol and a pointed-up triangle is the masculine. If the two triangles are superimposed onto each other a union of the masculine and feminine forms a six-point star, a symbol that has had an enduring spiritual significance for thousands of years to millions of people.
But even beyond the interpretive triangle shape derived from three points, the Hindu-Arabic derived form for the number three also can be oriented to signify fertility. Arabic numerals have their origin in the Seventh Century, reaching Europe in the 10-12th centuries via North African traders and the infamous Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, a scholar and mystic, who recognized the divine nature of patterned sequences. Although not a Fibonacci-recognized deduction, but perhaps a sensible reasoning that Professor Robert Langdon of Davinci Code fame would appreciate, the symbolic shape of the number three also can be seen as fertility when looked at sideways. If the number three is rotated 90 degrees its deeper meaning is brought forth. For your consideration see two number threes rotated 90 degrees and superimposed. They from the symbol of infinity, also known as eternal fertility.
Ideation. In the world of human culture, all significant advancement occurs where three different fields of thought overlap to birth a new movement, initiative, or idea. This concept, whether conscious or not, is the method by which most of history’s greatest thought leaders have advanced science, business, and the arts. It is at the intersection between the three overlapping circles where fertile ideas congregate, consort, and are conceived.
Elvis didn’t create Rock’n’Roll, but when he combined:
• rhythm and blues,
• good ol’ boy values, and
• hip-shaking sexual overtones,
his music found an audience of millions.
Steve Jobs didn’t create a better computer, but he combined:
• superior electrical engineering,
• attractive and creative design, and
• fantastic user experiences,
birthing arguably the world’s most valuable company—Apple computers.
Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t create a better protest movement, but when he combined:
• non-violent civil disobedience,
• religious themes, and
• “All men are created equal,”
an all-encompassing, highly effective civil rights movement transcending himself and the vehicle it came in on was birthed, adopted, and supported.
Einstein famously combined:
• mass, and
• speed of light
to bring forth one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time.
The lesson in this reasoning is, if wanting to give life to a new idea, business initiative, or movement, there is a greater likelihood of success if combining three different fields of thought. Don’t just make a better toaster oven but combine it with a cream cheese spreader and a microwave to develop something new and previously unknown.
Let’s look at the power of three in aesthetics. Dividing the face into thirds as part of facial analysis is nothing new. Whether it is the frontal thirds of the face or the nasal tripod, aesthetic cannons have always relied on threes to describe ideal proportions.
But let’s dive a bit deeper into patterns of threes hidden within the face. Too often in aesthetics, attention is focused on one feature without regard for its context and its relationship to other nearby facial features. But understanding that patterns of three are critical to processing and retaining information should prompt us to offer considerations to the threes when evaluating two cheeks balanced by chin, two eyes balanced by a nose, or two ears balanced by a mouth. Each feature of the face is only as important as how it is perceived in relation to two other features of the face.
Based on this concept, it’s no coincidence that our desire for patterns of three would be evident in facial recognition abilities. In a hundredth of a second, unknown faces are scanned and characterizing features identified and interpreted for health, safety, and familiarity. There is an evolutionarily cultivated survival mechanism embedded deep within the archaic brain that scans and confirms a would-be associate as beneficial to our well- being. Therefore, humans have become incredibly adept and skilled to recognize safe and familiar faces. And once again patterns of three are relied upon. One or two features gives us a clue to who a person maybe but it is after we see a third feature our confidence in who we are recognizing becomes obvious.
Triangle of Beauty
For the female, facial features perceived and situated with a three-pointed inverted triangular shape anchored by a wider upper third narrowing down to a thinner lower third is considered to be ideally beautiful by many prestigious sources. And this innate concept is why many young women intuitively prefer to take selfie photos with the camera situated from above. It accentuates and favorably distorts the eyes to be bigger while narrowing the chin and lower third of the face. Mother Nature doesn’t make mistakes, and a triangular facial shape is favored because it is an appearance common to fertility and youth.
Three = Fertility = Beauty
All that is fertile is beautiful in nature. There are many definitions of beauty, but it has been this author’s premise that beauty is the rawest form of communication, universally consistent and evolutionarily preserved throughout all living species.2-6 Beauty projects a message that says, “I am healthy, well, and I have good genes.” And anything in nature that approaches fertility is perceived as beautiful. It is how a flower messages to a bee that it is ready for pollination, just as a female macaque’s genital swelling messages ovulation to a ready male.
Beauty is nature’s language indicating health and fertility. And since beauty as a primitive force is critical to procreation and survival, it is found in all species including the phylogenetically primitive. Its impact has been evolutionarily preserved and perceived in the most primitive corners of the subconscious human brain. Beauty is not to be confused with attraction, which is defined differently. Attraction is consciously perceived, requiring a projector of beauty and a receiver of beauty. And while beauty is biologically predetermined and genetically coded for, attraction is not. Attraction is malleable, dynamic, and can be altered, enhanced, and augmented by adornment, make up, hair styles, clothing, posture, scents, and more. Attraction is specific to individual cultures, prejudices, and tastes.1,7
And herein lies where the numerological philosophy behind the number three merges to be one in the same with fertility and beauty. The number three is the numerical manifestation of the primitively preserved attributes of beauty and fertility. It is how Mother Nature signifies potentiality, and it is the reason humans are subliminally drawn to patterns of three, whether in communications, ideas or faces. Three equals fertility equals beauty.
While admittedly this is an abstract idea, it only has value if it serves as more than just an academic or philosophical curiosity. It has to have a practical application. So how do we harness the power and fertility of the three in everyday lives?
Harness The Power of Threes
In marketing or business, similar to Steve Jobs, offer products and or services in packages of three.
In communication, similar to Churchill, Lincoln, and MLK, express and illustrate ideas three different times or in three different styles for greater persuasion.
In formulating an experimental scientific idea, similar to Einstein, draw from three different unrelated theorems.
If in music or art, similar to Elvis, Freddie Mercury, or Madonna, combine three different genres.
In facial aesthetic treatments, evaluate and consider harmonizing three facial features simultaneously for a more ideal outcome.
The number three is a powerful number symbolizing harmony, beauty, and fertility and not just in the physical. Three has a pervasive existence and profound value throughout nature. Its potency is covert and without fanfare and to profit from the power of three requires peering past the obvious. But once introduced to the influence of three, its recurring pattern becomes evident everywhere. Like all of medicine and human culture, the key to meaningful advancement is to open a mind to the possibilities of what could be including the mystical nature of the number three.
1. The Guardian. “How composers from Mozart to Bach made their music add up.” https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/apr/05/mozart-bach-music-numbers-codes
2. Dayan, SH. Subliminally Exposed (2013 Morgan James Publishing NY, NY)
3. Dayan SH, Ashourian N. Considerations for Achieving a Natural Face in Cosmetic Procedures. JAMA Facial Plast Surg. 2015 Sep 24:1-2. doi:
Dayan SH. Mind, Mood, and Aesthetics Aesthetic Surgery Journal 2015; doi:10.1093/asj/sjv032
Dayan SH, Arkins JP, The Subliminal Difference: A New Treatment Philosophy, J Drugs Dermatol. 2012;11 (suppl 3) s10-s11.
Dayan, Steven H. What is Beauty, and Why Do We Care So Much About It? Arch Facial Plast Surg. Vol 1. No. 13 Jan/Feb 2011
Dayan S, Romero DH. Introducing a novel model: The special theory of relativity for attractiveness to define a natural and pleasing outcome following cosmetic treatments. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2018 Aug 6. doi: 10.1111/jocd.12732.
Steve Dayan, MD
• Steve Dayan, MD, is a facial plastic surgeon practicing in Chicago and a New York Times best-selling author. He is Co-Chief Medical Editor for Modern Aesthetics® magazine.