Turning face perception on its head

Featuring: Video Video

Are you pretty good at reading an expression? Can you recognise a face in a crowd? Watch the video of the 'Head Spin Trick'

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Tuesday 23rd September 2008
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Psychology
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Discuss this video, and watch other thought-provoking films on the OU YouTube channel.

The explanation

Vast amounts of information are conveyed by our faces – not just speech, but also nonverbal information – through our expressions. It’s also very important that we can tell the difference between people. Psychologists have suggested that our minds have, or learn, very specific abilities to process faces, their features and the information they convey.

Now, this ability is ‘tuned’ to work best on upright faces (not surprisingly, as that’s the way we usually see them). So when a face is turned upside down some of these processes don’t work so well, especially the ones that tell us about the spatial relationships between the main parts of the face: the mouth, eyes and nose. So when the face is upside down – it’s as if these abilities get turned off and so we don’t spot the oddities.

We know that very specific bits of our brains do this job – because people with prosopagnosia (where part of the brain is damaged) can’t spot the difference between the upside-down faces and the ones that are the right way up.

What could you do next?

  • Take a photo of yourself. Cut out the eyes and the mouth, then turn them upside down. Show your friends the photo upside down, and see if they can spot what’s wrong.
  • Check out psychology courses at the OU.

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