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.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.