It happens to the best of us – you’re making your daily trek up Mount Modlin, huffing and wishing you hadn’t had that extra plate of fries at D-Hall. Suddenly, you see someone approaching. She’s coming in hot and making hardcore eye contact; she’s smiling and you can see she is on the verge of waving right in your direction. Panic sets in. Only one question occupies your mind – “Who the HELL is that?” You know you’ve seen her face before – is she the girl you met in the bathroom at the club? Or the one who sits across from you in class? Could it be that girl who was in your OA group freshman year? As you mumble an awkward “Hey,” you can’t help but wonder why your brain has failed you, or what is even going on in there at all.
Although you may not quite care enough to actually figure out the neurological function behind recognizing someone on campus, there are some of us who do. The study of face recognition produces a vast and diverse amount of research questions in the realm of cognitive neuroscience. If you were to wander into Dr. Bukach’s lab in Sarah Brunet, you would find small groups of students who are investigating various aspects of the neural processes involved in recognizing faces.
It is incredibly important to fully understand how people process faces because this becomes the basis for further research, such as looking at people’s ability to process faces of their own race versus faces of other races – sometimes known as the other-race effect (ORE). Research like that could be involved in the greater discussion of racial stereotyping and other controversial and important everyday issues. And for all you business school students out there, you are using facial processing everytime you go to some sort of networking event and have to recognize who you know, who you don’t know, and who you should know.
In studying the mechanisms behind facial processing, one of the most important concepts to understand is called “holistic processing.” In order to understand holistic processing, think of a scenario in which you must identify your own mom out of a lineup of other moms – how do you know which one she is? Do you look at all of their eyes first and eliminate the ones without brown eyes? Do you study their noses and look for the nose with the bump in the middle as your mom has? Or do you decide it’s her by the way that her lips look when she smiles? If we processed faces this way, recognizing your mom would be a slow and tedious task. Instead, our brain has an amazing capability to look at the face as a whole and analyze the interaction between facial features, rather than just processing its independent parts such as the eyes, nose, and mouth. This ability is called holistic processing. Although we use holistic processing for both faces and objects, the mechanism is much stronger and faster in faces.
In a current study in Dr. Bukach’s lab, we are investigating just how important holistic processing is in our functional ability to identify faces and whether there could be more than one type of face. Specifically, we are assessing whether holistic processing of the inner features of the face, such as the nose, eyes and ears, creates a different correlation with face recognition compared to holistic processing of the outer features, which include the contour and shape of the face.
So, how are we testing such a small factor of your neurological functioning? Well, if you were to decide that you wanted to participate in such a study – which most of you don’t, so we typically use the Psych 100 students who are required to participate in on-campus research – you would walk into our lab, receive some instructions, sit down at a computer and complete two 30-minute tasks. The first task is called the composite task and is used to measure holistic processing by mixing and morphing faces together while you tell us which parts are the same and which parts are different from ones you have previously been shown. The second task is used to measure your face identification skills. You are presented with faces and later have to identify which ones you have previously seen and which ones you haven’t.
These tasks may sound like a fun challenge, but I can assure you that they quickly lose their charm after about five minutes. People leave our lab bored and with a possible twinge of a headache. Regardless of the fact that these tests may seem like quasi-torture, these tasks help us narrow down our research question.
Although it is overwhelming to think that our research question is only one of thousands of questions being made about facial recognition, the real-life application of our research makes it entirely worth it. For example, recent studies have found that holistic processing and face recognition are weaker when we are looking at people of a different race, in contrast to people of our own race, making it generally harder for us to be able to identify someone who is not the same race as us.
As you can imagine, findings like these can be emotionally charged and incredibly important when considering how we think about human interactions and racial stereotypes. Perhaps thinking members of a race different from your own “all look the same” is not an intentionally vindictive point of view, but rather the result of a neurological phenomena, even though the claim is obviously exaggerated and ridiculous, in my opinion.
The results of our research can also be applied to question the effectiveness of eyewitness identification, a crucial facet of our justice system. If our brain is not equipped to recognize people of another race as well as people of our own race, should this be considered when a victim is choosing a perpetrator out of a lineup?
In Bukach’s lab, we continue to study the ORE and possible ways that we may be able to diminish it. There are past and ongoing projects that look at how your previous quality and quantity of experience with members of another race may affect how your brain processes their faces. For example, if you grew up in a more diverse town, went to a public school, played sports, or were even adopted, you probably have had more quantity of interactions with members of another race, in addition to more quality relationships with those members. This experience has been shown to significantly diminish the ORE, implying that the ORE is learned and not genetic. Perhaps educating people about the ORE could help to eliminate or lessen the phenomenon.
As you can see, there are bigger questions about face identification that rely on the foundational research of holistic processing.
So, next time you are faced with an awkward encounter with that fellow spider that you know but really don’t know, and you’re wondering why you just can’t seem to place her, take comfort in the fact that we are trying our best to figure it out.