The science of “face perception” is bankrupt

May 14, 2016 – 10:34 am

There is a vast literature on the topic of “face perception”. This is one of the pillars of contemporary cognitive neuroscience. There are many competing models, informed by many kinds of experiment, both behavioural and neuroimaging. This field sits at the core of contemporary view of functional brain organisation. The finding of the field will inform not just speculative models, but real flesh and blood brain surgery.

It is troubling then to recognise that the entire literature is built on a simple and obvious conceptual error: experimental subjects are not viewing faces at all. They are viewing images of faces. Whether using still photographs, or moving videos, subjects are almost* never exposed to a real face (except perhaps outside of the framework of observation, as they arrive at the lab and greet the experimenter). Once the experiment begins, no faces are employed.

Isn’t looking at a picture of a face almost the same as looking at a face in the flesh? Absolutely not! If a real face is present, that face might just turn to you and snarl, spit, bite, kiss, shout or smile. No image will do that. Being in the presence of a person is not a mere detail. It is a completely different proposition from being in the presence of a picture.

But the belief exhibited by researchers that an image can stand for a real face in this way is revealing. Representational commitments of Cartesian, cognitivist approaches to minds go beyond the interpretation of patterns of brain activity. Here we see a consequence of a specifically Western, Christian approach to the relation of immanence and transcendence that needs a much fuller treatment.


* In a brief quip on Twitter, I made the overly strong claim that there were no studies at all that used real live faces. A few exceptions, listed below were pointed out to me. These constitute a tiny drop in the ocean, and do not materially change the observation that the field as a whole is based on the viewing of images, rather than faces.

Here are two studies that actually thematise the distinction between images and real faces. Using ERP methodology they find marked differences in brain activity when viewing real faces compared with images.

Pönkänen, L. M., Hietanen, J. K., Peltola, M. J., Kauppinen, P. K., Haapalainen, A., & Leppänen, J. M. (2008). Facing a real person: an event-related potential study. Neuroreport, 19(4), 497-501.

Pönkänen, L. M., Alhoniemi, A., Leppänen, J. M., & Hietanen, J. K. (2010). Does it make a difference if I have an eye contact with you or with your picture? An ERP study. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience

And there are a few studies to see whether people can match real faces to photos (e.g. when checking passports or photo ID), for example:

Kemp, R., Towell, N., & Pike, G. (1997). When seeing should not be believing: Photographs, credit cards and fraud. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11(3), 211-222.

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