Skip to main content

What makes an interesting face?

Facial Processing

What's the first thing you notice upon entering a room? For most of us, it's people or, more specifically, people's faces. Faces hold a special power for us, perhaps more so than art or objects.

At a very basic level, faces indicate identity. However, faces are remarkably rich information carriers: identity, emotion, social cues; Humans are incredibly adept at extracting this information within as little as one second of seeing a face.

Our faces are our calling cards. They tell the world who we are and often how we are feeling. The youngest infants have a special affinity for faces, and the human brain devotes some of its most basic structures to recognising faces and the subtleties of facial expression.

Recognising faces

Most people have never given any thought to how important it is to be able to recognise other people; but imagine the scenario of meeting someone new and forgetting their name and it is only their name you have forgotten. But should you forget someone's face, this means to most people that you have forgotten everything, and indeed you would probably feel that you have never seen that person before.

Thankfully we are born with a special part of the brain that recognises faces and distinguishing faces is an inborn ability in primates; even the youngest infants respond to their Mothers face.

As a child, each person builds a system for telling people apart. As a child grows, we develop a system for recognising people. We also build our tribe, our type, our core identity, and our personal identity.

Some people are quite a bit better at recognising faces than others. Actually, these skills are economically valuable in such fields as the police, sales, acting and management. People who are skilled at facial identification are often drawn to those fields, because it's natural for people to pursue fields that they're good at and that pay well.

Tribal identity

Some animals, such as bears, spend their lives mostly alone. Bears, though, are powerful animals with giant claws. A bear can take care of himself in the wild. People are relatively defenceless, and a man alone in the wild finds it tough to survive. He needs a tribe.

If we look back in time we lived in tribes. We evolved in that environment, and we are still tribal creatures. Civilization has only come along in the last few hundred generations, far too recent to effect significant mutational change. So civilization has not moulded us to its requirements, but rather, we have moulded it to fit our prehistoric tribal needs. The tribe was of course originally your tribal village, but though such are today long gone, we are still trying to "find" it.

Tribe members are generally known to us, and how each member is remembered by giving him an individual file. Since one does not know a high percentage of non-tribe members, the usual way of dealing with them is not as individuals. Instead, we deal with them in large chunks, using stereotypes. Using stereotypes saves huge amounts of memory space. We learn the fact that bees sting, for example, and that enables us to learn about millions of them in one fell swoop.

What happens when you look at someone's face?

Face recognition is one of the most difficult visual tasks humans perform, because faces are so similar, exactly how people recognise faces is not completely understood.

Face Processing is done in the subconscious, more specifically in the right hemisphere of the brain (at least in the brains of typical right-handed people).

Image: Human Brain

The temporal lobe of the brain is partly responsible for our ability to recognise faces. Some neurons in the temporal lobe respond to particular features of faces. Some people who suffer damage to the temporal lobe lose their ability to recognise and identify familiar faces. This disorder is called prosopagnosia.

What makes a face interesting?

The human face is of great interest - as Cicero said, "everything is in the face."

It is rare for individuals to be born with physical facial perfection (although some people think they have it). The majority of us have something that we are not happy with whether our nose is too big, or there is one too many chins, or if our eyes seem to be too close together. These imperfections seem to magnify, as we grow older. With our advancing age, these features are emphasized with the accumulation of wrinkles, fine lines, and fat over the years.

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have discovered that the human brain favours familiar-looking faces when choosing a potential partner. They also found that the human brain holds separate images of both male and female faces and reacts to them differently depending on how familiar it is with their facial features.

It may be that visual experience of particular facial features suggests that a person is 'safe' or more 'approachable', both of which are desirable traits. Visual experience with one face can also affect your perception of and even preference for other, similar faces.

Research has shown that men and women judge faces that resemble their own as most trustworthy, but when asked to judge the attractiveness of these same faces for a short-term relationship, men and women are averse to self-resembling faces.

Does Talent Show in the Face?

George Orwell said, "At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves."

Character and spirituality gradually shows in the face over the passage of time, but we must remember that we can be fooled by the face; I’m sure we’ve all at some time experienced putting our trust in someone we thought looked trustworthy only to be kicked in the teeth. That said, as far as choosing to find out more about a new author simply by whether you find their face interesting; I would say: we have been evolving for millions of years and have picked up skills along the way that we don’t yet understand fully – call them instincts.

Faces may well permit a direct glimpse into the person's inner self (by unintentionally revealing, for example, aspects of character or mood). Trust your intuition – what have you got to loose?