60-Second Mind

The Lure of Bette Davis Eyes

Two scientists from the University of Bremen have found that groups of brain cells within the temporal lobe of macaque monkeys, are not only dedicated to recognizing facial features, but each cell is responsible for specific sub-sets of facial features, like eye size.

Podcast Transcript: Out of all the features in a face, we might guess the eyes hold court. And the larger, the better. Think Bette Davis, nocturnal tarsiers, babies…

Recently, scientists have started to uncover fascinating physiological explanations for why we might like big eyes.

Doris Tsao and Winrich Freiwald of the University of Bremen, Germany, defined 19 features of faces—such as the distance between the nose and mouth, or the size of an iris.

Then they presented various cartoon faces to macaque monkeys, while recording the activity of individual brain cells.

They found that not only are all cells within a specific region of the temporal lobe dedicated solely to face recognition, each of those cells are solely dedicated to a specific subset of facial features.

For instance, the greatest number of cells respond specifically to iris size. And the response is directly proportional to the size of the iris. The more extreme the iris, the more vigorous the reaction of the cells.

Hm...might finally explain the skyrocketing YouTube popularity of the real-life anime character, MRirian, a 21-year-old who just stares and blinks into her Webcam. She has views in the millions. I guess it’s all in her huge round eyes.

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