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News Social context is vital in learning and recognising a face

Article in 'News' Written by Arul Prakash Published Nov 13, 2013

  1. You are on a weekend trip and one of your colleague makes an impromptu appearance, the chances are you will be hard pressed to recognise him/her straight away. So, why does it take ages for us to recognise familiar faces in unfamiliar setting?

    Researchers in a study published today in Nature Communications said the answer lies in the processes that our brain performs during learning and recognising faces.


    Researchers from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway using MRI scans monitored brain activity of volunteers while random faces of people were shown to them. Some images of same face taken from different angles were intentionally repeated. Finally, the volunteers were asked to indicate whether they recognised the faces or not.

    Volunteers were able to recognise those repeated faces fairly well provided they had already seen them for a specific number of time. Researchers used this data to construct a mathematical model that could explain the process involved in learning and recognising.

    Researchers found that context in which they saw the face was part of the decision making process.They also noticed that volunteers found it harder to recognise faces, when they were exposed to a lot of unfamiliar faces, even when they are repeated and previously recognised faces.

    Activity in two areas of the brain matched the way in which the mathematical model predicted people’s performance.

    “Our study has characterised some of the mathematical processes that are happening in our brain as we do this,” said lead author Dr Matthew Apps. “One brain area, called the fusiform face area, seems to be involved in learning new information about faces and increasing their familiarity."

    “Another area, called the superior temporal sulcus, we found to have an important role in influencing our report of whether we recognise someone’s face, regardless of whether we are actually familiar with them or not. While this seems rather counter-intuitive, it may be an important mechanism for simplifying all the information that we need to process about faces.”

    “Face recognition is a fundamental social skill, but we show how error prone this process can be. To recognise someone, we become familiar with their face, by learning a little more about what it looks like,” said co-author Professor Manos Tsakiris.

    “At the same time, we often see people in different contexts. The recognition biases that we measured might give us an advantage in integrating information about identity and social context, two key elements of our social world.”

    Further reading : Predictive codes of familiarity and context during the perceptual learning of facial identities
    Matthew A. J. Apps & Manos Tsakiris
    • Arul Prakash

      Article by Arul Prakash

      Editor and founder of BiotechCareer.Org. He is an Industrial Biotechnologists and also a web developer, gooner, blogger, and foodie.

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