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How Do We Recognize Faces?

By Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on January 16, 2012

How Do We Recognize Faces?A new line of research investigates why some individuals are better at recognizing faces than others.

The study expands on prior findings that have discovered we are better at recognizing faces from our own race than others. And, of course even within the same race, some individuals easily recognize people they have previously met while others struggle even with familiar faces.

Malaysian researchers discovered that when it comes to recognizing people, the Malaysian Chinese have adapted their facial recognition techniques to cope with living in a multicultural environment.

Investigators discovered the ability to recognize faces often stems from the method used by an individual to look at people — a technique that has been refined for individuals living in a multicultural environment.

“Our research has shown that Malaysian Chinese adopt a unique looking pattern which differed from both Westerners and Mainland Chinese, possibly due to the multicultural nature of the country,” says study author, Chrystalle Tan.

The ability to recognize different faces may have social and evolutionary advantages, says Tan.

Human faces provide vital information about a person’s identity and characteristics such as gender, age, health and attractiveness.

Although we all have the same basic features we have our own distinguishing features and there is evidence that the brain has a specialized mental module dedicated to face processing.

Prior research by Scottish investigators showed that Asians from mainland China use more holistic recognition techniques to recognize faces than Westerners.

Facial recognition by Chinese often begins with a focus on the center of the face in the nose area, as compared to Westerners who tend to concentrate attention on a triangular area between the eyes and mouth.

Interestingly, researchers discovered that British born Chinese use both techniques fixating predominantly around either the eyes and mouth, or the nose.

“The traditional view is that people recognize faces by looking in turn at each eye and then the mouth. This previous research showed us that some Asian groups actually focus on the center of the face, in the nose area,” reports Tan.

Investigators believe that while Westerners are learning what each separate part of the face looks like — a strategy that could be useful in populations where hair and eye color vary dramatically — mainland Chinese use a more global strategy, using information about how the features are arranged.

Individuals living in a mixed race environment, such as British born Chinese, have adapted their recognition patterns to use a mixture of both techniques suggesting an increased familiarity with other-race faces enhances recognition abilities.

The study by the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus set out to investigate whether exposure and familiarity with other cultures affects our recognition accuracy and eye movement strategies.

The team used specialized eye tracking technology on 22 Malaysian Chinese student volunteers to investigate the visual strategies used to recognize photographs of faces.

The results showed that Malaysian Chinese used a unique mixed strategy by focusing on the eyes and nose more than the mouth.

Chrystalle said: “We have shown that Malaysian Chinese adopt a unique looking pattern which differed from both Westerners and mainland Chinese. This combination of Eastern and Western looking patterns proved advantageous for Malaysian Chinese to accurately recognize Chinese and Caucasian faces.”

The study was recently published online in the scientific journal PloS One.

Source: University of Nottingham

Group of people photo by shutterstock.

 

APA Reference
Nauert, R. (2012). How Do We Recognize Faces?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/01/16/how-do-we-recognize-faces/33706.html