What Caricatures Can Teach Us About Facial Recognition

Posted filed under Comics, Portraits, Technology.


“Our brains are incredibly agile machines, and it’s hard to think of anything they do more efficiently than recognize faces,” analyzes Wired. Just hours after birth, the eyes of newborns are drawn to facelike patterns. An adult brain knows it’s seeing a face within 100 milliseconds, and it takes just over a second to realize that two different pictures of a face, even if they’re lit or rotated in very different ways, belong to the same person. Neuroscientists now believe that there may be a specific region of the brain, on the fusiform gyrus of the temporal lobe, dedicated to facial recognition.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of our gift for recognition is the magic of caricature—the fact that the sparest cartoon of a familiar face, even a single line dashed off in two seconds, can be identified by our brains in an instant. It’s often said that a good caricature looks more like a person than the person himself. As it happens, this notion, counterintuitive though it may sound, is actually supported by research. In the field of vision science, there’s even a term for this seeming paradox—the caricature effect—a phrase that hints at how our brains misperceive faces as much as perceive them.

Human faces are all built pretty much the same: two eyes above a nose that’s above a mouth, the features varying from person to person generally by mere millimeters. So what our brains look for, according to vision scientists, are the outlying features—those characteristics that deviate most from the ideal face we carry around in our heads, the running average of every visage we’ve ever seen. We code each new face we encounter not in absolute terms but in the several ways it differs markedly from the mean. In other words, to beat what vision scientists call the homogeneity problem, we accentuate what’s most important for recognition and largely ignore what isn’t. Our perception fixates on the upturned nose, rendering it more porcine, the sunken eyes or the fleshy cheeks, making them loom larger. To better identify and remember people, we turn them into caricatures.

Read on: Wired asked four top caricaturists to sketch the writer of this story. The results are shown here and throughout the story. To read about how writer Ben Austen reacted to the images, see the end of the story.

Photo above: Joshua Anderson; caricature: Court Jones