How do our brains recognize faces?
This is an incredibly complex question, because the process of facial recognition is an almost miraculously instantaneous one. As discussed in a previous blog, we don’t need to make a careful study of somebody’s face to recognize them. Instead, we just know who someone is, which is really amazing, given how complex people’s faces are and how frequently environmental factors, like lighting, complicate the matter.
But even a process so incredible is not immune to thorough scientific analysis. In a recent study, Dr. Doris Tsao at Caltech analyzed the brains of macaque monkeys to model which neurons fired during the recognition process.
Previous studies have identified specific parts of the brain, small regions in the temporal lobe, that consistently respond to facial recognition. Building off this research, Dr. Tsao found that different sections of these regions, or “dials,” respond to the recognition process for specific features of the face, such as eye placement, shape, or skin tone. From all of these responses, the brain synthesizes the data and creates a model of the face.
In fact, Dr. Tsao concluded “the values of each dial are so predictable that we can re-create the face that a monkey sees, by simply tracking the electrical activity of its face cells,” calling this process “mind-blowing.”
And here’s the really mind-blowing part: Dr. Tsao and her team were able to create a predictive model for various facial features, based on the monkeys’ brain activity. After showing a monkey an image of a human face, they analyzed the brain activity through their model and generated nearly identical images to the ones that were shown.
This research has the potential to dismantle our current understanding of facial recognition. While some researchers have advocated for the view that faces are created from this synthesis of individual features, the more prominent view held that our recognition of each individual face is stored in individual, face-specific, neurons.
However, one of this view’s proponents, Dr. Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, of the University of Leicester, said that Dr. Tsao’s research “completely changes our understanding of how we recognize faces.”
While this research is certainly fascinating, what are the practical implications?
In fact, facial recognition is a critical component in recognizing emotions as well. When we look at a face, our brains analyze deviations from a “normal” facial expression, contrasting emotional signals with our expectations. Thus, by better understanding how the brain recognizes faces, we can also further our understanding of how to recognize emotions!
Why does that person look so angry?
You don’t have to have any sort of chronic anxiety to understand how easy it is to misunderstand other people’s facial expressions. We often interact with strangers, or even friends, and find ourselves unable to read their emotions, fearing that they are unhappy or angry.
In fact, newly published research suggests that feelings of anxiety do actually make us misread ambiguous facial expressions. Not only are we left unable to accurately determine their emotions, but we are more likely to mistakenly conclude that they are angry.
A group of researchers at the University of Bristol sought to investigate the role that anxiety has on impairing emotion recognition. They brought together a group of volunteers and exposed them to a series of images showing the same face, but with fifteen different emotional expressions. These ranged from surprise and happiness to disgust and anger, and the volunteers were asked to identify each emotion. A follow-up study expanded this analysis to 45 images.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but here is where the experiment gets really interesting. Each participant was given a facemask that pumped air into their lungs. Now, some of these facemasks simply delivered normal oxygen-dominated air, but half of them contained large amounts of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide spiked participants’ heart rates and blood pressure, causing anxiety attacks.
When compared to the control group, who was given normal air, the participants who inhaled carbon dioxide were about eight percent worse at correctly identifying emotions. Moreover, they tended to perceive anger much more often than happiness.
This is certainly not the first evidence that anxiety emphasizes negative emotional recognition. As this 2016 study outlines, a great deal of research demonstrates how those with social anxiety have trouble recognizing emotion and often attribute anger or sadness to neutral expressions.
Similarly, other disorders, such as depression and eating disorders, thwart one’s understanding of facial expressions.
All of this is perhaps not surprising, however, given the role of the amygdala in the recognition of ambiguous expressions. The amygdala, which is deeply connected with anxiety and fear, is activated when we see people with uncertain expressions, firing according to the level of perceived ambiguity. Similarly, it is also activated when attempting to read fear into other people’s faces.
Given that the amygdala is connected with both anxiety and ambiguous expressions, it would certainly make sense that increased levels of anxiety would thwart effective emotional recognition.
So perhaps, in your next uncertain social interaction, don’t conclude that the other person is angry with you. Perhaps, they are just distracted or not particularly emotive, leading to ambiguous expressions.
The idea of standing desks is certainly in vogue in the workplace, but is it the best choice?
Proponents point out that sitting for too long can have serious health problems, and many people even argue that standing at one’s desk can help boost productivity. While there may be some truth in this trendy approach, psychologist Mary Lamia emphasizes the possible downsides of being more in touch with your coworkers.
Anybody who has worked in a cubicle is familiar with how isolating that can feel, putting us out of sight from the rest of the office. According to Dr. Lamia, however, this might be a very good thing, based on our inevitable exposure to other people’s microexpressions.
Essentially, when we are constantly able to look at other people while standing at our desks, we subconsciously read into the expressions of everyone else in the room. Sitting at a cubicle limits our field of vision, but standing not only expands our field of view, it also raises our perspective. Both of these factors increase the amount of people’s emotions we are forced to process.
As Dr. Lamia says: “You’re like a lightning rod… You don’t just notice your colleagues’ presence—you start to literally imitate their presence.”
With all of these people in our peripheral gaze, we subconsciously process their emotions. Even when people are staring blank faced at a computer screen, for instance, they display microexpressions involuntarily. As these flit across their faces, our brains seize on these changes, processing the emotions, and distracting us from our work.
It is important to remember that reading expressions is not something that is done through careful analysis. Instead, we see a face, and immediately come to recognize what emotion is being displayed. Because this is not a rational or conscious process, it can happen at the subconscious level as well.
As psychologist Dr. Derek Chapman points out, standing desks can also contribute to what is called the “spotlight effect.” This phenomena distracts us by making us believe that people are paying undue attention to us. This can occur if we are one of only a few people at a standing desk and exacerbates Dr. Lamia’s concerns.
That said, despite the risks of empathetic overload, standing desks can have the potential to boost productivity and combat obesity.
Instead of completing rejecting or embracing this new phenomenon, Dr. Chapman urges a level of moderation. He points out that “People perform optimally at a moderate level of arousal… too much and we can’t focus, too little and we’re bored.”
With this all in mind, must work to strike a balance, staying conscious of the role that microexpressions play in all of our lives, whether we are aware of them or not.