How we see family resemblance in faces

A new study has shed light on our ability to identify members of a family from facial structures.

“Being able to see the family resemblance between faces that have some underlying difference, such as the difference between male and female faces, is an ability that is not well understood and merits further investigation to work out how visual information about faces is organized,” said author Harry J. Griffin, PhD, of the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences at University College London.

The researchers conducted two experiments using original and synthesized cross-gender “sibling” faces that resemble each other and “anti-sibling” faces that have the opposite characteristics of the original face.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to identify male-female sibling pairs.

Participants chose the sibling pair significantly more often than the randomly selected cross-gender pairings and the random pairings more often than the anti-face pairings.

“This pattern of results shows that when we see a face, we compare it to an average face for that gender, allowing us to pick out only the face cues that tell us about family membership while disregarding the irrelevant gender cues,” explained Griffin.

In the second experiment, using the visual adaptation method of biasing an observer’s perception of objects through prolonged exposure, participants were shown a male anti-sibling generated from a female face.

The results indicate that adapting to the male face clearly influenced the perceived identity of a subsequent identity-ambiguous female face.

This implies that the cues underlying family resemblance for both male and female faces are processed within the same brain space, according to the researchers.

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“We used this simple, non-invasive method to show that the facial appearance of men and women are processed by overlapping populations of brain cells,” stated Griffin.

“This takes our understanding beyond the conceptual and gives a picture of how the brain actually works,” he added.

The study has been published in the Journal of Vision.

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