Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

What Is In A Face?


When you were a baby, adults were able to hide from you by covering their eyes. Just by covering part of their face they would disappear before your eyes and reappear in an instant. It was never magic. It was your brain.

Infants recognise face-like patterns and by covering part of your face the pattern and recognition is lost. Autistic adults tend to see a face in a reddish blob with four lines and non-autistic adults will only recognise patters very similar to faces. The exact mechanisms that enable face detection are debated.

One of the things we react to, when analysing a real-life scenario, are faces. We tend to continually shift our gaze to scan small bits of our surroundings in sequence and might focus on a few objects. When looking around, we firstly confirm that we are looking at a human face and not an animal or object, that we assess the familiarity of the face and finally name the person if we do know his or her name. Since people who struggle to identify individuals are able to tell that they are looking at a face, the process is thought to happen in a hierarchical or sequential order.

Once spotted, we need about 190 milliseconds to figure out if we recognize the face and know person. And identifying a man from a woman is also relatively fast (280 milliseconds). As expected we are quicker at identifying a famous face compared to unknown people.

Without thinking about it you are constantly looking for faces. It is your biological nature to be able to spot a face and also assess if this face is familiar or not. Once, your survival depended on it and to some extent it is still crucial today, since social relationships will always be important to humans. But just like face-recognition software mistake blobs for a person, our brains will make the same mistakes from time to time. Which is why some people have been known to find their old pal Jesus lurking on their toast in the morning.

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