Woman grimaces behind comical glasses and a fake moustache.

Recognizing Faces

Amid the grieving and financial desperation that arrived with COVID-19, the difficulty in recognizing our masked friends must seem like small potatoes. It’s apparently a big concern for security systems that no longer work as well and a headache for programmers who must develop new algorithms.  Officials can detect whether masks are being worn, but not so much who is wearing the masks!

Researchers have made good progress in explaining how we recognize the things around us, which is object perception.

Oddly, none of the approaches for recognizing objects works for faces. Decades ago there was a simple explanation that we recognize objects analytically, feature by feature, mostly in the inferotemporal cortex; but we recognize faces holistically in the fusiform face area. Doubts about the completeness of such an explanation have developed.

Face-recognition neurons are considered to be widely dispersed in functional networks rather than localized in the medial temporal lobe to detect Jennifer Anniston or other familiar faces, responding to features within faces rather than individual faces.

Incidentally, a flashed face distortion effect is becoming well known. It is apparently not a product of the face recognition mechanisms we are discussing.

High-contast profile of Abraham Lincoln

BIO: Faces are important for eating, breathing, and for some of the same reasons that the brain developed within the head: clustering sense organs where they will do the most good.

Face recognition is an important process because of the advantages of affiliation. It’s evident that crowshoneybees, sheeppigeons and even crayfish can recognize faces, but perhaps not for the same reasons we can. Among humans, the face enhances social communication. Among primates it appears that faces have evolved toward greater social signaling.

PSYCHO: Despite a biological foundation for face recognition, biologically prepared learning plays an important role in its development. An extreme degree of facial recognition skill may lie beyond learning without some biological predisposition, though it can be duplicated with other, learnable techniques.

Face recognition is probably not a unitary skill but a label for a combination of skills. For example, people with less vivid mental images will not remember faces as well as someone with more vivid mental images. Furthermore, object and face recognition arise from distributed systems in the brain, enabling recovery of function even after injury to much of the original supporting brain tissue.

Face recognition displays a lot of variability. At the high-scoring end are super-recognizers.  People who process facial images holistically rather than analytically tend to be superior face recognizers. Is that you? Find out here, there, this site, or yonder and be glad for aging.

At the other extreme are folks with prosopagnosia, or face blindness. It’s not all-or-none. Many people have it to a partial extent, and of course there are tests. There is evidence that prosopagnosics are impaired in mental imagery as well as in remembering and recognizing faces.

What do differences in face recognition mean? People with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, and super-recognizers vary pretty continuously and the rest of us are in the middle. There are also folks can’t recognize objects and are diagnosed with visual agnosia. (There are also people who can’t recognize voices–phonagnosics–but they aren’t the issue here.)

It may be worth mentioning that computer technology can sometimes beat human skill at recognizing faces. If humans have lost the edge in recognizing faces, they might still have it in reading faces in China or elsewhere. A computer can recognize gender; can it read pain? Reading is not as algorithmic as recognition, particularly when it comes to telling your fortune. ☺  You can also test yourself here or there (discussed yonder).

Psychology Today has also picked up the topic here, there, and yonder (new adverbs needed, obviously).

And here is Simon Baron-Cohen’s test of empathy.

How does this work? Do people reveal emotions and other conditions involuntarily or are sneakier motives at work?

Along with super-recognizers and folks with highly superior autobiographical memories, we should recognize super-musicians as people with great memories.

Does it strike you that the categories of super-performers are multiplying? Decades ago, someone who scored six standard deviations above the mean was an Einstein, a genius, but no longer.

I raise the issue because I haven’t seen any comment in print about what happens when you add up 1000 people who are all 1-in-1000 “super” people in one skill or another. Elsewhere I have mentioned how prevalent rare cognitive disorders seem to be when you add them all up. It’s getting to look the same for rare super-talents as well. And there are still lots of unoccupied pedestals for the strivers!

SOCIAL: If face recognition helps the group, it may sometimes be a threat to individuals. We hide betraying signs of fatigue and add a smarter edge with cosmetics.

How good is our face recognition as a social tool? Good enough for pair bonding and large forms of social organization to survive, but evolution is famous for yielding results that only suffice to increase reproductive success: results that are just good enough.  Our skill is not selective enough to avoid face pareidolia but the best of us are very good.

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