Tag Archives: Face Processing

Faces get all the attention but we are misled by them?

Eagerly anticipating this counter-intuitive book:

Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions
Alexander Todorov
Hardcover | May 2017



Australian study finds evidence suggesting that use of recreational drug ecstasy will damage face perception ability

White, Claire, Edwards, Mark, Brown, John and Bell, Jason The impact of recreational MDMA ‘ecstasy’ use on global form processing. Journal of Psychopharmacology. August 20, 2014

Published online before print August 20, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0269881114546709



Yeang, Lily Ecstasy use affects ability to detect faces, shapes and patterns. ScienceNetwork Western Australia.



One should bear in mind that this study only used a small number of long-term ecstasy users as subjects (6) and these people also used other drugs, which could have had an influence, and it appears that actual faces or images of faces were not a part of the study, which tested the type of visual processing of which face processing is apparently one example. The full text of the study is behind a paywall, so I’ve not yet read it in full. The study is certainly interesting, as it displays internal consistency in the findings which are also apparently compatible with the findings of other studies.

This study is just another good reason why the testing of visual processing, including abilities such as face memory and global form processing, should ideally be an element of the job recruitment selection process for many jobs. “If global form processing is damaged or deficient then our speed and accuracy in recognizing objects in the environment, and our ability to navigate amongst those objects, will be impaired.” So does that mean that long-term ecstasy users aren’t OK to operate heavy machinery or to drive? I think it is anyone’s guess, and there is no law enforcement or job screening process that I am aware of that is likely to detect people with this kind of visual processing disability, until they have a crash. If you know otherwise, please leave a comment and we we’ll all be the wiser.

Personification everywhere

I’ve been watching a repeat of the series Secrets of the Superbrands, a TV series about marketing of global mega-brands, and the host of the series was visiting a laboratory that creates flavourings and fragrances for super-brands. They spoke about creating flavourings that match the “personality” of the brand, citing a list of emotional attributes that can be embodied “serious”, “playful” etc. How is the different to the varieties of synaesthesia that personify concepts such as numbers and letters, or the varieties of synaesthesia that personify objects such as house plants, fruits and cutlery?

Later a researcher in South London, Prof. Gemma Calvert of the Neurosense Group, at the Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences, was shown doing a study with an MRI brain scanner, putting people into the scanner while they were shown photos of the faces of people in their immediate family, and also shown photos of the products, featuring familiar product logos and labelling and packaging design, that they are personally familiar with. Apparently the photos of faces and products triggered similar patterns of brain activation, activiating a “reward centre”, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and also the face recognition areas at the back of the brain. This could be interpreted as evidence that advertising and marketing and brand packaging design produces the effect of personifiying products in ordinary people, so I think it follows that one does not need to be a personifying synaesthete to perceive objects as though they are faces or people. Perhaps personifying synaesthetes are more consciously aware of this effect, or perhaps we are more open to being manipulated in this way, but it shows that we aren’t really that special or different.

New paper about study of face processing in developmental prosopagnosia on oxytocin

The paper is open access, so you don’t need to pay to read the whole thing. Is “face processing” the same thing as “face memory” or “face recognition”? When I’ve got more time I’ll have a good look at this study and see. I have noted that this is a quite small study (10 DPs, 10 controls), so let’s not get too excited about the findings.


Two bits of interesting information about the Cambridge Face Memory Test can be found within this paper.  The authors advise that some people with developmental prosopagnosia can achieve a normal score on the CFMT by using “effective compensatory strategies”. I’m curious about how that is done, because I thought the CFMT was pretty much cheat proof. It is also revealed that two new versions of the CFMT were created for this study.

I plan to write more about this paper but right now my garden requires attention. And after that the turquoise coastline lined with fine white sand near where we live will require attention.

You know you’re a super-recognizer when….

……you identify an Australian character actor in a terrific old English horror movie that was made in 1945, filmed when the actress was young and had no Australian accent, and many years before she was most famous in Australia.

Dead of Night – IMDb – cast – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037635/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm#cast

If you have a taste for evil ventriloquists’ dummies, this is one to watch for sure.

Pareidolia in a squashed plastic choc-milk bottle


Faces, faces everywhere

I’ve been following with great interest the Mindscapes series of articles in New Scientist magazine by Helen Thompson. This week is no less fascinating, maybe even more. It’s about a man whose personality changed following two strokes, paradoxically transforming from criminality to sensitivity, with the strokes also triggering an unstoppable surge of artistic creativity. The artist’s name was Tommy McHugh. He passed away last year. Such artists by virtue of brain transformation are sometimes labelled as acquired savants, and the interesting thing is that they often seem to experience synaesthesia, which raises the question of whether they were always synaesthetes or perhaps synaesthesia is latent in all people, and can be uncovered by changes in brain functioning. What especially interests me about McHugh’s art is the extraordinary focus on faces in his paintings and also sculptures, many of them having such subtle depictions of multiple faces that they could be described as a celebration of pareidolia. Colour is also clearly an aspect of visual experience that McHugh enjoyed experimenting with. I was also struck by McHugh’s description of what it was like to have the first stroke; when he woke up in hospital he saw a tree sprouting numbers. That sounds like just the type of non-psychotic hallucination that Oliver Sacks described in his recent book Hallucinations. It is my understanding that faces, colour and graphemes including numbers are all processed in the fusiform gyrus. The fusiform gyrus is also believed to be involved in at least some types of synaesthesia. I know about this stuff because I have experienced synaesthesia involving faces, graphemes, colours and just about everything that goes on in the fusiform gyrus, and I’m apparently naturally gifted in face memory ability. It looks as though McHugh could also have experienced synaesthesia, judging by the title of one painting “Feeling the Feelings Tasting Emotions”. Yes, I’ve experienced that too. A few years ago I speculated that the famous synaesthete Bauhaus artist Kandinsky showed a focus on the things processed in the fusiform gyrus in one of his paintings (Upward), including a face that could be missed by viewers not gifted with a goodly dose of pareidolia.  This might be what happens when your fusiform gyrus gets off it’s leash, and McHugh insisted that it was the best thing that ever happened to him.





New paper about Williams syndrome and face processing

Cashon, Cara, Ha, Oh-Reyong, DeNicola, Christopher, Mervis, Carolyn Toddlers with Williams Syndrome Process Upright but not Inverted Faces Holistically. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. DOI10.1007/s10803-013-1804-0  http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-013-1804-0

It sounds interesting that toddlers with Williams syndrome have “extreme interest in faces from a very young age”, but I just want to know how the performance of these toddlers compares with the abilities of toddlers without Williams syndrome. If interest isn’t reflected in superior performance that might be interesting in itself, I guess, but it would be more interesting if there was a definite relationship between interest and perrformance.

Obama’s face no less fascinating

President Obama has been sworn in for the second time, and he continues to make Washington DC a more attractive place than it would otherwise have been. He is surely too pretty for politics. I never fail to be amazed, whenever I see Obama’s winning smile, how much it looks like Nelson Mandela’s winning smile, so perhaps that proves there is some precedent of good looks in politics. I also can’t help but be drawn to noticing the colours in his facial features, I’m not sure exactly why. People of mixed race like Mr Obama often have aspects of their facial appearance that catch the eye because they violate unconscious expectations about the typical appearance of the races. European features with a dark skin or vice versa will baffle the mind for a moment. Maybe this is why I’m often left with the impression that Obama’s face lacks warm colours despite his share of African melanin. Such a warm smile on a face that has so much gray in it! My visual cortex never quite knows what to make of this famous face. I’m a little suspicious of Obama’s rich brown glow at today’s stirring inauguration speech. I hope I don’t give the impression of being a racist who can’t get over a dark-skinned president. I think it could be the darker colouration around Obama’s mouth and eyes which throws my face processing hardware into a minor spin, because when I look at Obama I can’t help thinking about those Indian people who naturally have “dark rings” around their eyes and dark lips (I once had a strikingly beautiful lady of this type as a co-worker), or the most fascinating Wodaabe people of various countries in Africa. They are a physically beautiful ethnic group with some unusual customs, such as the young men wearing make-up and fancy costumes while courting. Their dark make-up around their eyes and mouth emphasizes the whiteness of their eyes and teeth. I have also seen a photo in which lines down the middle of the faces in pale make-up possibly emphasize the symmetry of the men’s faces. Wodaabe men on display are quite a spectacle, and an unforgettable sight. An evolutionary psychologist might identify the display of facial symmetry and whiteness in eyes and teeth from contrasting natural darker skin colouration and also in cultural displays using dark eye and lip make-up as displays of genetic fitness and health which are adaptive. Americans have a more succinct way of describing this phenomenon: “eye candy”.

Wodaabe ethnic group http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wodaabe&oldid=513464314

Anything interesting in upcoming academic book about face processing?

I’ve had a quick look at an upcoming large academic book about face perception that is currently listed and searchable at the Amazon.com website. The title is Oxford Handbook of Face Perception and it is due for publication this October. For a book of this size and price it looks like there will be surprisingly little in it of interest to me, despite my interest in face recognition and other neuroscience subjects.

It looks like there will be little or no discussion of the subject of synaesthesia in the book, which would be something of an oversight considering that there appears to be a fair amount of evidence supporting the idea that under-connectivity in the brain could be cause of serious deficits in face recognition (prosopagnosia) in at least some cases of prosopagnosia, and under-connectivity could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, a harmless neurological condition of which some varieties are associated with increased connectivity in the brain’s white matter. The upcoming book does appear to have some discussion of under-connectivity and prosopagnosia, but it appears nothing much about conditions that can be found the opposite end of the spectrum of face processing ability, things such as super-recognizers and synaesthesia. There is a whole section of the book devoted to disorders including prosopagnosia, while I can find no indication from the contents or searching the text of the book that there will be any coverage of superiority in face recognition. It also appears that there is no coverage of superiority in facial emotion perception. I was recently fascinated to learn that a number of studies have found that superior identification of emotional expressions is associated with some disorders, including borderline personality disorder. As far as I can tell there’s nothing about this in this book. This lack of coverage of superior face perception doesn’t surprise me. I believe that, unless confronted with contrary evidence, most people, including academics and teachers, assume that the clever end of the bell curve is just the result of normal brains that are just lucky enough to have missed out on the types of problems that might impair cognitive performance. If this were true, there wouldn’t be anything terribly interesting to find in studying people who have very high IQs or people who have specific areas of high intellectual ability such as superior interpersonal skills, musical gifts, ease in language learning, impressive calculation abilities or an unusual facility in recognizing faces. If these talents and abilities were just the result of lots of practice and/or a super-normal brain, then these abilities would hardly be worth studying. Of course, we all know that there are some most unusual people who have special gifts, the male autistic or disabled savants that we read about in books by Oliver Sacks, but such people are thought to be rare as hen’s teeth, and kept hidden away.

Everyone knows what a savant is, but no one expects to ever meet one. I think this could be one reason why the teachers from the gifted and talented program that is run through our local government school district thought it was necessary to conduct a talk a few years ago for the parents of gifted students, to explain how these students are often quite different from bright but not gifted students. The teachers introduced us to the concept of asychronous development in gifted children. Gifted children often develop on a schedule that is unique to them and may develop in different domains on very different timetables. We were told that gifted kids can have intellectual, social and emotional development that are at very different stages, and such kids can have uneven levels of achievement across the range of school subjects. There is an obvious similarity between the concepts of asynchronous development in the gifted and the concept of the savant, which is generally thought of as a disabled or autistic person who has one area of cognitive brilliance that contrasts with overall poor performance (the reality of savantism isn’t really this simple). A clear point of distinction between the savant and the gifted child with uneven development is a hard thing to find. Another thing that the parents of the gifted were told that night is that the group of kids who passed the testing to get into the gifted program included some children who were already diagnosed with something from a range of psychiatric diagnoses such as ADHD, Asperger’s Disorder or Autistic Disorder. The gifted aren’t just super-normals. The gifted are unique. The gifted are often different, not just in level of achievement, but in type. Are there more or less synaesthetes among the gifted than we would expect to find, given what we know about the commonality of this interesting neurological condition? I don’t think this has been researched yet. The gifted are different. This is why I believe that there could be a lot of interesting things to find if scientists would study the gifted with as much enthusiasm as they target the deficient. This is why I think it is a pity that in this day and age we have textbooks about reading that have a chapter about dyslexia but nothing about advanced or precocious readers, and door-stopper texts about face perception that appear to ignore super-recognizers and expert emotion-readers. Maybe next decade.


Andy Calder, Gillian Rhodes, Mark Johnson, Jim Haxby Oxford Handbook of Face Perception (Oxford Handbook Series) Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (October 1, 2011) http://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Handbook-Face-Perception/dp/0199559058/ref=sr_1_43?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310687539&sr=1-43

Tolan, Stephanie Giftedness As Asynchronous Development.  http://www.stephanietolan.com/gt_as_asynch.htm

Domes G, Czieschnek D, Weidler F, Berger C, Fast K, Herpertz SC. Recognition of facial affect in Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders. 2008 Apr;22(2):135-47. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18419234

Fertuck EA, Jekal A, Song I, Wyman B, Morris MC, Wilson ST, Brodsky BS, Stanley B Enhanced ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ in borderline personality disorder compared to healthy controls. Psychological Medicine. 2009 Dec;39(12):1979-88. Epub 2009 May 22. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19460187

Wagner AW, Linehan MM. Facial expression recognition ability among women with borderline personality disorder: implications for emotion regulation? Journal of Personality Disorders. 1999 Winter;13(4):329-44.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10633314