New research suggests we remember a face based upon particular characteristics, contradicting the long-held belief that the brain processes faces “holistically.”
Researchers at the University of Southern California believe the discovery will improve our understanding of how the brain functions and may provide key insights on rare facial recognition disorders.
Humans are exceptionally skilled at recognizing faces. In fact, specific areas of the brain are specifically associated with face perception.
Prior opinion held that humans recognized the face as a whole, meaning that there is something about the picture created by the entire face – the particular arrangement of a face’s eyes, nose, and mouth and not just these features themselves – that makes it easier for the human brain to make a positive ID.
The new research suggests differently.
“There is this belief that faces are special,” said the study’s co-author Bosco Tjan, Ph.D. “But why? How is the face special?”
Tjan believes a car metaphor helps to explain the new belief. Would it be easier for a car aficionado to identify a ’58 Corvette by its distinctive quad headlights, chunky chrome grille and swoop on the side — or if shown the car that all these pieces make when added together?
Tjan and collaborators tested participants on how accurately they were able to identify a set of faces by the parts of those faces – the nose, left eye, right eye or mouth.
Then, using a well-established formula that Tjan developed in an earlier study, the researchers extrapolated how accurately each participant should be able to identify an entire face.
If humans were better at face recognition than nose or eye recognition, one would expect each participant to do a better job of identification when the features are all arranged together into a face. But in fact, the participants did a little worse than predicted by Tjan’s formula.
Facial recognition, it appears, hinges on recognizing the face’s features more than the “holistic” picture they add up to create — a rare case in which the sum of the parts is not as helpful as the parts themselves.
The study appears in this month’s Psychological Science.