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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.
The holistic approach
Another way of understanding the effect is to distinguish between viewing the face as a whole and seeing the individual features. Research has found that we do not remember faces as a series of individual features (eyes, nose etc.) but instead, tend to perceive and remember faces ‘holistically’ – in other words, we see and remember the face as a whole. Turning a face upside down gets in the way of this holistic perception, meaning we instead look at each facial feature. As the features in the ‘Head Spin Trick’ are upright when the face is upside down, they look as we would expect them to, so we do not notice anything odd. However, when the face rotates back to upright and the features are upside down, we again see the face holistically and notice that something is very wrong!
To see how difficult it is to perceive and remember faces feature by feature, you can try to create a ‘Photofit’ image with our new PhotoFit Me App. Either see how good you would be as a witness as part of a criminal investigation or challenge your memory with our 'Create a celebrity’ with our PhotoFit Me app.