Face Perception


Face perception is a challenging task, given the richness of information contained in faces, such as identity, expression and age, their dynamic and complex shapes and the subtlety of the differences between faces. Our face expertise shows a marked orientation dependence, being superior for upright faces, and the mechanisms involved process not only facial features but their spatial relationships to each other in a holistic, integrated manner. Cognitive models propose that recognition involves a flow of information through a series of stages, with distinct pathways for different facial properties, such as identity and expression. Anatomically, face processing involve a core face processing network in the occipital and temporal lobes, including the fusiform face area, as well as more extended regions of the brain. Face recognition is impaired in the condition of prosopagnosia, which can be either acquired or developmental. It may also be anomalous in some subjects with autism.

Key Concepts

  • Many types of information can be gathered through face perception, including the identity, gender, emotional state, age and attractiveness of the person.
  • The face inversion effect is a marker of an orientation‐dependent perceptual expertise we develop with faces.
  • The composite face effect and the part–whole advantage are experimental observations that show that we process faces in a holistic manner.
  • Not all parts of the face are equal in importance: the upper half and the eyes play a greater role in identifying the face.
  • Cognitive models propose a series of processing stages, with information flowing from perception to memory, and in different streams for identity and expression processing.
  • Neuroanatomic data show a core face network in the occipital and temporal lobes, more significant in the right side of the brain that interacts with additional regions in frontal and anterior temporal regions.
  • Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognise the identity of familiar faces, or to learn to recognise new faces.
  • There is debate about whether the recognition problem in prosopagnosia is limited to faces: some data indicate that identification of other objects for which the patient is also an expert may be affected too.
  • Prosopagnosia can be developmental, perhaps through a hereditary defect that affects the development of face‐sensitive cortical regions or their connections.
  • Patients with autism can have difficulty with recognising the identity or expression of faces: some suggest that this is due to their tendency to avoid looking at faces.

Keywords: face; perception; familiarity; memory; holistic; feature; prosopagnosia

Figure 1. The face inversion effect: the Thatcher illusion. This is a classic example of the difficulty in perceiving facial configuration in upside‐down faces, first shown using a picture of Margaret Thatcher (Thompson, ). If the eyes and mouth are turned upside down but the rest of the face is oriented correctly (top right), the result is bizarre, if not grotesque. However, when the faces are shown upside down (bottom row), this is not so easily appreciated. Reproduced from Thompson (1980) Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).
Figure 2. The composite face effect. When the top half of the face is shown with different bottom halves, observers are more likely to be fooled into answering that the tops appear different if the tops and bottoms are aligned to create a whole face (top row), than if they are not aligned (bottom row). This is cited as evidence of ‘holistic processing’ of upright faces. If the faces are viewed upside down, the effect of aligning the halves is much reduced or absent.
Figure 3. Face adaptation. The middle face is an ambiguous hybrid created by morphing between the left and the right faces. Observers who stare at the left face for 5 s and then look at the hybrid image are almost twice as likely to respond that the hybrid looks more like the right face than the left face, whereas the reverse is true if they stare at the right face for 5 s first.
Figure 4. A cognitive model of face (and voice) perception. In the visual system, the structure of the face is perceived and coded. This information is sent to diverging parallel processes for analysing face identity, expression and speech patterns, among others. For face identity, the information from coding of facial structure is compared to memories of previously seen faces, stored in face recognition units. A successful match activates person‐identity nodes and access to stores of semantic information about who this person is. A similar process can be envisioned for voices, which will converge on the person‐identity nodes, which is thus a multimodal gateway to person information.
Figure 5. The core face network. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was performed on three subjects while they viewed faces versus objects. Areas in orange indicate an increase in blood oxygen level when viewing faces. Only right hemisphere regions are shown.


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Further Reading

Bruce V and Young A (2011) Face Perception. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Cole J (1997) About Face. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Peterson MA and Rhodes G (2003) Perception of Faces, Objects, and Scenes: Analytic and Holistic Processes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rhodes G, Calder A, Johnson M and Haxby JV (2011) Oxford Handbook of Face Perception. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Young AW, De Haan EHF and Bauer RM (eds) (2008) Special issue: Face perception. Journal of Neuropsychology 2 (1).

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Barton, Jason JS(Jan 2016) Face Perception. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0025786]