Snap Judgements, Face Blindness, and More

I have a confession to make.  When I’m feeling like I need to update DTS but I haven’t been inspired lately, I just google ‘SCIENCE!’ and hope to find inspiration within the internet.  Usually this fails miserably but tonight it actually worked!  I came across this study, which is not only cool  in and of itself, but also made me want to share a little bit about myself with you guys!

Some examples of faces with differing levels of trustworthiness, and brain scans of the amygdala.

In the study, professor Jonathan Freeman of NYU and his colleagues found that our brains make snap judgments about a person’s face before we even consciously consider it.  This means that before you even get to say ‘hello’ to someone, our brain has already decided whether or not we think they’re initially trustworthy, based on their facial features.

The study focused on the activity seen in an area of the brain called the amygdala.  The amygdala plays a role in emotional reactions, memory, and decision making.  Studies have found that a larger amygdala actually makes you better at judging people, relating to others, and getting through social situations.  The amygdala is actually one of the most well-understood areas of the brain, and also plays a huge role in facial recognition (keep reading…)

The researchers showed study participants pictures of faces (both real and computer generated) and imagined their brain’s reaction to the pictures.  The faces were flashed for just milliseconds, which meant that the participants never made an conscious thoughts about the people they were shown.  However, their subconscious was hard at work.  The computer generated faces acted as controls – they were designed to be seen as either very trustworthy or very untrustworthy, based on past studies of facial structure.

The reason this is so cool (and so related to the author herself) is that it confirms the suspicion that there are both conscious and unconscious reactions to a person’s face.   I have a mild form of a congenital disorder called Prosopagnosia, or face blindness.  People with this disorder (which can also be caused by brain damage) have been shown to have an emotional reaction to a familiar person’s face, even when reporting that they consciously didn’t recognize the person.

Face blindness is something that I didn’t even realize was weird until sometime in college.  I thought everyone recognized each other based on context clues like clothing, location and timing, voice, etc.  But it turns out that most humans are insanely good at distinguishing between different faces!  We have evolved to be so good at picking up the human face, that we’re even likely to see them in every day inanimate objects.

Most cases are face blindness are caused by head trauma, but there are known congenital (inherited) cases.  Face blindness varies from an absolute inability to recognize even your own parents, to something that’s more like what I have.  I have a hard time recognizing people out of context.  My boyfriend is always joking that if he just got a whole new wardrobe he could walk by me on the street without me noticing, and it’s probably true!  If I’m expecting to see you in my hometown, or at work, or I know you wear a green jacket, then I have no trouble spotting and recognizing you from a ways away.  But when people show up where I don’t expect them to be, or they get a new coat, or they cut off their hair, or I can’t watch them walk or hear their voice, I’m pretty bad at recognizing even my close friends.  I have a tendency to walk by people without saying hi, which tends to upset people, but really isn’t anything personal.

Any of you have any trouble with this?  There are these online test you can take to find out if this is something you might have as well.  They’re not well standardized, and they obviously aren’t 100% reliable, but they’re certainly an interesting thing to do!  The online test shows you a famous person’s face and then you type in the name of the person if you can.  If you get it wrong, it tells you who it is and there is an option for “I’m not familiar with this person” so that you don’t lose points for being someone who lives under a rock.  I’ve taken several (just google it), and I failed miserably, but I’d love to hear about it from my readers!


Thanks to Bill Dickinson and flickr’s creative commons for the lovely picture of some people!
Thanks also to google for the inspiration this time!
And, as always, a special thank you to the masses of Wikipedia, for most of the background knowledge needed for this post.

I know that post was a little more fun and personal than my normal science stuff, but I wanted to share with you guys.  Any suggestions for next week’s topic?



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