Recognizing Friend from Foe

Why does your face look so different from mine?

This blog has spent a great deal of time talking about various methods of facial recognition, as well as its relationship to emotional recognition. An important part of this question rests in the vast diversity of human faces that we come into contact with. We need facial recognition skills, in part, because there are so many faces to choose from! As Psychology Today’s Dr. Nathan Lents explains, this human peculiarity also reveals a wealth of evolutionary information.

When we refer to facial recognition as a human peculiarity, that underscores how unique our multitude of different faces are. We have more unique facial structures than any other mammal, and primates are some of the only animals that have varied faces or emotional expressions. Birds, reptiles, insects, etc., while capable of facial recognition do not form display emotions in a similar fashion.

This demonstrates how closely tied facial recognition and emotional expressions are in humans. According to Dr. Lents, mammals first evolved muscles in the face in order to suckle from mammary glands, but as we began to develop into primates and hominids, these muscles grew to become capable of facial expression as a form of communication.

It was these changing muscles that resulted in such a diversity of human faces. In fact, not only are our faces quite different from each other, they tend to vary more than any other physical features.

Given how deeply ingrained facial features and emotion recognition are in our evolutionary history, it is not entirely surprising that some tendencies seem pretty universal. Not only do human babies across cultures develop incredibly fast facial recognition skills but all humans seem to share a set of universal emotional expressions.

For instance, numerous studies have found that newborn humans gain the ability to recognize faces incredibly quickly, learning to distinguish their mother’s within hours. Shockingly, preliminary research suggests that fetuses begin to favor human faces over neutral stimulus even before birth!

Moreover, we seem to have evolved to display universal basic expressions, such as disgust, fear or anger, based on evolutionary responses to the outside world. This was even postulated by Charles Darwin before subsequent psychological research, including the work of Humintell’s own Dr. David Matsumoto, confirmed the presence of these expressions regardless of culture.

For more information on the links between emotional and facial recognition, check out our past blogs here and here.

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