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See Inside The Science of Perception

What's in a Face?

The human brain is good at identifying faces, but illusions can fool our “face sense”


Our brains are exquisitely tuned to perceive, recognize and remember faces. We can easily find a friend's face among dozens or hundreds of unfamiliar faces in a busy street. We look at each other's facial expressions for signs of appreciation and disapproval, love and contempt. And even after we have corresponded or spoken on the phone with somebody for a long time, we are often relieved when we meet him or her in person and are able to put “a face to the name.”

The neurons responsible for our refined “face sense” lie in a brain region called the fusiform gyrus. Trauma or lesions to this brain area result in a rare neurological condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Prosopagnostics fail to identify celebrities, close relatives and even themselves in the mirror. But even those of us with normal face-recognition skills are subject to many illusions and biases in face perception.

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