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The facial-recognition software in our heads

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 23, 2009 12:25 PM

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In a recent study, happiness was more recognizable than fear (from a distance)

Both the technology and biology of facial recognition are hot scholarly topics. Homeland-security officials would love to have programs that could sound the alarm when well-known suspicious characters enter an airport. And psychologists are exploring how human beings divine such interior states as fear, anxiety, and desire via their fellow citizens' faces, often through very subtle cues, in the hopes that such research may shed light on the evolution of human communication.

Two psychologists at the University of Glasgow, Fraser W. Smith and Philippe G. Schyns, recently came up with some perplexing results while studying the ability of university students to identify certain emotions-- happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise--on the faces of photographed actors.

It would make sense, they wrote, in "Psychological Science," if we discerned fear and anger most easily: these hint at immediate danger. My tribesman sees a bear! My tribesman knows I slept with his wife!

To simulate, for the subjects in their labs, varying distances for viewing faces, Smith and Schyns manipulated the photos of the actors' faces in a number of ways. Sometimes they removed detail;sometimes they provided glimpses of only parts of a face. (This rendered some of the visages ghostly and surreal.)

To the researchers' surprise, happiness and surprise turned out to be the most easily identifiable emotions. Surprise isn't so hard to understand, the authors said, though they weren't expecting that result: Humans may have evolved to recognize it because it signals the arrival of a situation that could turn bad fast.

Happiness's identifiability, however, remains a mystery. In evolutionary-psychology terms, happiness on another human's face may connote a willingness to engage in reciprocity--a useful thing to know, sure. But hardly as urgent as escaping a bear. It may be that smiles cause signals to get crossed in human brains: in many non-human animals, after all, bared teeth are the quintessential aggressive signal.

More research, and more creepy face pictures, will clearly be necessary.

A photograph of a face showing fear, variously manipulated to simulate distance or partial obscurity
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