Imagine a world where no one looks familiar to you, not even in your own home. You recognize voices, speech patterns and mannerisms but, even though you can see and describe them, you don’t actually recognize faces. You’re suffering from a neurological disorder known as prosopagnosia or face blindness.  

Face perception is an important social skill. The information provided by faces helps us understand and communicate with others, enabling us to accurately analyze people’s expressions. Face perception is therefore a fundamental skill that humans acquire at an early stage of development. And it supports our ability to socialize (importance of social interaction).

Humans recognize faces quickly and efficiently, regardless of configurations or imperfections. A face looks different depending on the angle and the lighting, for example. The appearance of a face also changes with each expression and over time, and can be altered by scars and other physical marks. And yet, despite all these potential variations, a single person can successfully recognize and identify hundreds or even thousands of faces. We can even pick out a familiar face in a crowd in an instant, even if we haven’t seen it for more than 80 years. These examples illustrate the brain’s incredible ability to create and memorize an invariant representation of every face we see. 

To get a better understanding of how humans perceive faces, scientists have studied the brains of people with prosopagnosia to locate the specific areas affected by the lesions responsible for the disorder. The primary cause appears to be a lesion at the junction of the temporal and occipital lobes, in a region of the fusiform gyrus known as the “fusiform face area” (FFA). The FFA seems to be dedicated to the storage and processing of facial information – a hypothesis supported by brain imaging. But it’s not the only area of the brain involved in face recognition. Many neuronal networks, including visual and emotional processing networks, also play a role in processing facial information. 

Face perception remains an extremely complex process. Several cognitive models have been proposed to explain it, based on the areas of the brain involved. The principal finding is that faces are perceived and processed holistically. Simply put, although we often describe a face in terms of specific features, our brains actually recognize the face as a whole, ratherthan as a collection of individual parts. 

The current public health crisis provides an interesting parallel. When part of the face is covered by a mask, rapid recognition is impaired, sometimes even for close friends. We must then rely on clues such as voice, posture and clothing to recognize people we know – a bit like someone who has prosopagnosia. 

Face recognition is a complex phenomenon. But in humans, it’s a highly-developed skill

Face recognition is a complex phenomenon. But in humans, it’s a highly-developed skill that is acquired at a very young age and is essential to our social and emotional understanding of others. This exceptional ability to read faces makes them the best vehicle for expressing our emotions rapidly and in a controlled way. When we see a smiling face, we can’t help but smile back!

So, it’s important for advertisers to bear in mind that a face is never neutral. It will always be cataloged and memorized according to specific characteristics. It might be classified as familiar or unfamiliar, defined in emotional terms (kind or cold, attractive or repulsive, friendly or threatening, etc.) or attributed certain qualities (aristocratic or plebeian, smart or stupid, etc.). The wealth of information provided by the face makes it a fundamental vector in communication. 

Here are two examples of ads where the message being conveyed is reinforced by the use of faces:   

Voce Viva
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