The Art and Science of Face Perception: looking at faces is more complicated than it … looks

“The Art and Science of Face Perception” – Symposium held in conjunction with 39th Australasian Experimental Psychology Conference, Saturday 14th April 2012 (Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney)

As part of the Archibald Portrait exhibition and together with the 39th Australasian Experimental Psychology Conference, the Art of Gallery of NSW hosted a symposium of four talks on facial recognition and various topics related to it. Two speakers were academics from the University of Western Australia and the other two speakers came from the United States and Canada. The symposium lasted just over three hours after a late start (usual when the audiovisual equipment decides to play up at the last minute) with a short break between the second and third talks.

The first speaker, Professor Michael A Webster (University of Nevada, Reno) presented an amusing talk on how we recognise faces and the stimulus requirements our brains and eyes need to see faces in visual noise. Turns out the requirements are very minimal: the noise must be bilaterally symmetrical with a vertical axis of symmetry; light and dark spots must be close to the axis; and a pair of dark spots straddling the axis is usually all that is sufficient for people to see a pair of eyes. Once the spots are interpreted as eyes, the rest of the noise is then pulled into the “face” so perhaps lighter spots below the eyes instantly become cheeks. We see faces as whole images (holistic processing) and we also use norm-based coding (how we recognise individual faces, what cues we use as anchors for “normal” faces). Our visual systems are highly adaptable, evidenced by optical illusions and after-images of images stared at for long periods, and our brains are constantly re-calibrating and judging the information supplied by our eyes of people’s faces.

The talk turned on what controls the brain’s adaptations when it sees faces and, no surprise at all, life experience controls adaptaions: so, a person who grows up in a desert filled with red, yellow and orange backgrounds will notice green in a savanna landscape whereas a person who grows up in a tropical forest region will notice yellow in the same savanna landscape.

Second speaker Professor Gillian Rhodes (University of WA) presented “Hot or Not? The psychology and biology of beauty”, originally tailored to undergraduate university students but relevant to everyone as the topic turns on what characteristics of faces make some more “beautiful” than others. These characteristics include symmetry, sex-linked characteristics and mathematically graded average characteristics: mathematically averaged faces are found to be more attractive than the faces the averages are composites of. The issue then turned on what is an “average” face, what influences our perceptions of average faces and whether we can change our experiences to change our perceptions. Studies on this and related topics demonstrate that exposure to facial distortions can and do change preferences and aesthetic judgements, and that experience “tunes” preferences. Interestingly faces of mixed-race averages are rated most attractive, suggesting that people unconsciously seek biological factors such as good genes and genetic diversity in potential mates.

James T Enns (University of British Columbia) presented “Rembrandt and modern vision science: following the eyes of the masters”, an investigation into how the 17th century Dutch painter exploited selective details of his subject – often a self-portrait – to guide the viewer’s eye into looking at his painting for longer. Enns contrasted the use of blur and sharpness not only to guide viewers’ eyes to look at certain objects in pictures such as photographs but to influence viewers’ opinions on the personalities of people whose faces are featured in the pictures. The psychological phenomenon known as Fundamental Attribution Bias, where we overestimate personality traits but underestimate the situational context when we observe people’s behaviour (so a person who trips over a rock is automatically labelled a clumsy doofus; when the observer trips over the same rock, s/he blames the rock), was shown to have quite an influence on viewers’ opinions of pictures of people.

Romina Palermo (University of WA) presented “Face blindness: the inability to recognise identity from the face” as a straight lecture on prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise familiar faces including one’s own face and those of celebrities. Palermo gave examples of people unable to recognise human faces but able to recognise animal faces or very similar objects as individual. There are different types of prosopagnosia: acquired (caused by brain trauma or dementia) and developmental which can be inherited or can sometimes (but not always) be associated with autism. Palermo concluded her talk with methods and strategies psychologists and doctors have used to teach face recognition skills to people with the disability.

Each talk was entertaining, often humorous (the American speaker especially was self-deprecating, a quality not usually associated with Americans!) and featured very striking visual aids. The time passed so quickly that the audience was rather sorry when the last talk finished and everyone had to leave. As the symposium started late and had to finish on time, question-time at the end of each talk was very hurried and limited to two simple questions. For me the symposium was an eye-opener into just how complex face recognition issues can be and how preferences for particular faces or the “average” face can be shaped so easily: an illuminating example of how situational factors influence our choices and desires far more than we realise. Of course, this knowledge can be used for propaganda purposes and to mould public opinion against people’s better interests.

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