Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Spotlight on Research: What's in (Half) a Face?

In the School of Psychology's new Spotlight on Research section, we focus on recent research conducted by Dr Darren Burke at our Ourimbah campus (pictured partly and wholly below!): 


When we recognise someone, we integrate information from across their face into a perceptual whole, and do so using a specialised brain region. Recognising other kinds of objects does not engage such specific brain areas, and is achieved in a much more parts-based way.

In a recent review of the literature, we (Burke & Sulikowski, 2013) investigated how this face-specific mode of perception may have evolved by examining the evidence for face-based holistic processing in other species. A surprisingly wide variety of other animals can recognise each other from their “face”, but for most of these there is either evidence that they don’t do this “holistically” (dogs are an example) or insufficient evidence to claim that they do (typically because the experiments are poorly designed).

There is good evidence that some species of monkey are as affected by turning the face upside down as humans are (which is one index of holistic processing), and one species of monkey (Rhesus macaques) also show evidence of the “composite effect”. The composite effect refers to the fact that people find it difficult to recognise the top half of a face if it is shown lined up with the bottom half of a different face, because we can’t help integrating the two halves into a new whole. People have trouble recognising other primate faces when they are upside down, but only show the composite effect for human faces.

We also suggested that the original evolutionary origin of special holistic face processing might not be to recognise who’s who. There are actually lots of other sources of evolutionary important information in faces that require holistic integration. For example, detecting symmetry, and masculinity/femininity is important for mate-choice decisions, and subtle variations in facial configurations underpin many non-verbal communicative signals.

For more information about this work, please see the following journal article:

Burke, D., & Sulikowski, D. (2013). The Evolution of Holistic Processing of Faces Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00011

or contact Dr Darren Burke at Darren.Burke@newcastle.edu.au