Illusions Unmask Our "Face Sense"

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

Superman relies on the same illusion to protect his identity: thanks to a pair of glasses, a change of clothes and a di­f­ferent hairstyle, nobody in Metropolis realizes that he and Clark Kent are the same person.

Gaze at the angry face (left) for about 30 seconds while looking around the face from the eyes to the mouth, to the nose, back to the eyes, and so on. Then look at the center face. It looks scared, right? Now look at the scared face (right) for 30 seconds and then look at the center face again. This time it is angry! In reality, the center face is a 50–50 blend of an angry and a scared face.

Created by Andrea Butler and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia, this illusion shows that our visual-processing system adapts to an unchanging facial expression by temporarily becoming less responsive to it. As a result, the other facial expression dominates when you view the blend. This adaptation occurs in higher-level brain circuits, rather than in the retina, because the illusion works even if you view the left or right image with one eye only and then look at the center image with your other (unadapted) eye.

This article was originally published with the title "Illusions: What's in a Face?."

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