Your Brain’s Facial Recognition Technology

Harry was a friendly young man, 32, married
with a wife and children. The only problem was that Harry couldn’t actually recognise
his wife or children–by looking at their faces. His wife, for example, had to identify
herself to Harry by wearing conspicuous articles of clothing, like a big red hat. By taking one quick look at something like…
my face… you can tell my age, gender, race, where I’m looking and even my mood. And if
you’ve met me before, hello, you generally recognise me in a fraction of a second. We have this amazing ability to recognise
faces–there’s even a dedicated area in our brains for it–but we hardly ever stop to
think just how amazing this really is. For all the new faces we see, our brains figure
out how different it is from our perception of an average face – this is an average of
all of the faces you’ve encountered before. Our brains reduce the facial features, like
eyes or lips, to a point and what we remember is just the distance and direction of that
point from the centre. This is called face-space, not like the FaceSpace
the Oatmeal invented but a vector based mathematical model of face perception proposed by researchers
in the 80s. It allows us to remember a huge amount of faces, because what we store in
our memory is this code, rather than having a photographic memory for faces as a whole.
Because of this tendency to construct an “average face” from all of ones that we see, we’re
more likely to remember distinctive faces from typical ones, like Gollum’s huge eyes
or Mr. Spock’s pointy ears. As for people we already know, like our friends,
family and even celebrities, something interesting happens inside our brain when we see their
faces. Researchers recorded lots of single neurons,
which are so incredibly tiny, in patients suffering from epileptic seizures who had
electrodes implanted within their skull. They found that single neurons fired only when
subjects were shown pictures of Jennifer Aniston, or Halle Berry, compared other faces or objects
they didn’t recognise. Your neurons aren’t lightening up because
you’re jealous of Jen’s hair or love her chin, it’s simply because you recognise her. This
activation of your neurons happens for your friends and families too, it’s quite appropriately
called “the grandmother cell”. Some researchers question the existence of
such a neuron, but perhaps the neurons firing is our way of retrieving our face space memory. Sadly there are times when grandmother won’t
be there to help. There are some people, just like Harry, who don’t recognise any faces,
ever. People who suffer from this condition, face
blindness or prosopagnosia, have a warped face space. Most of the time it’s due to brain
damage in facial recognition areas, Harry actually sustained head injuries from a car
crash, other people are born with it. It’s like people suffering from this condition
just can’t join the dots, some face blind people will only recognise those they see
very often, some won’t recognise anyone at all.
So things like Facebook are even better at identifying you than some people are. And
facial recognition technology actually uses the face-space principles to work.
This technology identifies you, or me, by measuring things like the distance between
your eyes, the width of your nose, the shape of your cheekbones and the length of your
jaw line. In other words, your faceprint. While most of our brains do this intuitively,
I hope there’s some way for facial recognition technology to help face blind people to recognise
their wife or children in years to come. So the next time you just can’t remember a
person’s name, be thankful that you can recognise their face. And that you don’t have to wear
this for your significant other to recognise you.
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17 thoughts on “Your Brain’s Facial Recognition Technology

  1. Is face blindness in any way linked to people on the autism spectrum's tendency to simply not think of looking at people's faces unless prompted?

  2. What I am curious:
    How do these people with face blindness actually see faces? Is it that all faces just look the same to them? You know, like the effect when you look at faces of people from foreign cultures. At the first glance they all seem to "look the same". And if you met someone of this culture on the street, you are not sure if it is really the person you have already met before. You have to learn to recognize the distinctive features first.

  3. Thank you for bringing prosopagnosia (face blindness) out of the shadows.  Recently my mother and I watched amazed as my sister sketched my father from memory.  Neither of us would be able to do that.  We are both, mother and I, mildly face blind.  It is very awkward when someone approaches me with a friendly "hello" and I have never seen that person in my life.  It is not just that I cannot recall the name, I can't recognize the person at all.  Same with my mother.  Never happens with my sister.  Like other brain differences, this is hard to talk about.  Perhaps now I can. 

  4. Found this through a link at Science Alert!

    You just got yourself an additional subscriber Faceblindness is facinating – everytime I tell people that it's actually a true condition, most don't believe me.

    I would like to see a video on blindsight – it too is a facinating condition that alot of people would enjoy learning about 🙂

  5. Is there a space in the brain specifically for remembering names of people? I'm great with faces but terrible with names. Lately I've been trying word association along with an image when trying to memorise a name. It only seems to work when I'm concentrating hard with the word association technique.

  6. Well, modern theories about how the brain works actually propose that the brain is filled with those "grandmother cells."

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