Face values

About Face - In the Eye of the Beholder

May 15, 1998

When some years ago I first learned of American research that claimed newborn infants look more at a moving "face" than an equally complex pattern made up of scrambled facial features I was, frankly, sceptical. My doubts were quickly dispelled, however, when Suzanne Dziurawiec and I replicated the work on babies less than one hour old. They too displayed an unmistakable interest in a moving face, following it with head and eyes. By the second day of life babies can reliably recognise their mothers; and also imitate facial gestures such as mouth opening and tongue poking (something I was able to replicate, informally, within minutes of the birth of one of my own sons). All of this strongly suggests that babies are somehow designed to attend to faces, respond to them and remember them - which may form important roles in bonding.

So, the nativism summarised by William James's contention that the neonate arrives into a world that is a "booming, buzzing confusion" needs some modification. Faces, it would seem, are so biologically important that we are hardwired to look at them and quickly learn their properties. Both About Face and In the Eye of the Beholder serve to flush out the significance of the human face in quite different ways. Jonathan Cole's approach may be described as experiential whereas Vicki Bruce and Andy Young, two of the world's leading authorities on the topic, adopt a characteristic preference for experimental studies. Indeed, their subtitle, The Science of Face Perception, confirms their conviction that lasting answers to questions about how faces are perceived and remembered and what mechanisms support the role of the face as a communication system are best answered empirically.

Cole's book is firmly in the line of "neuroanthropology" pioneered by Oliver Sachs and Harold Klawens. Cole himself prefers the phrase "human-based science" by which, I suppose, he means a mixture of scholarship and face-to-face interviews with patients who have face-related problems, often letting them tell their own harrowing stories and sometimes prompting them with questions, some of which can only be described as leading.

These interviews are undeniably interesting. Mostly they are with people who are unable to use their own faces to convey their moods and intentions or appreciate these states in the faces of others. People who are blind of course cannot see expressions on faces and may, instead, use their vocal expressions to infer mental and mood states. Some people with autism also fail to use faces to infer the internal state of others. Cole's interviews with David Blunkett and other sight-impaired people provide interesting insights into their conception of the way others look as well as into the difficulties they have preventing their own faces sending the wrong signals.

Those with Bell's palsy, a stroke, Parkinson's disease or Mobius syndrome (a disorder in which one has little or no control over facial muscles) have even greater problems. For different reasons each condition leads to limited or even completely absent facial expressions and Cole has been able to trace for some the quite devastating social consequences of their handicap.

James, for instance, grew up with a "funny face" that made him different from other children and, as he got older, he became aware that his oddness caused his social isolation. After university James was ordained into the Church of England where his awareness of being different continued. He became depressed, experienced marital difficulties and eventually retired early. Only recently has he become aware that his "funny face" is shared by others and that a self-help group of people with Mobius syndrome exists. Had he experienced a similar social network of people with a similar inability to move facial muscles, perhaps his life would have been different.

One of the unexpected consequences of Mobius syndrome is that not only are children unable to emit emotional expressions but they seem to have difficulties in interpreting those on the faces of others. Cole alludes to this phenomenon but fails to consider its possible significance. Instead he is content to echo the comments of an unspecified number of parents of children with Mobius syndrome who claimed that they had no such difficulties. This may be adequate for a journalist but it is not a scientifically acceptable position. If there is a doubt about the validity of experimental data, the answer, of course, is to try to replicate them. Cole's approach, by contrast, is to listen but neither judge nor doubt. This makes his book easy to read but ultimately unsatisfying. Most neuroanthropological writings produce in me the same response: they tickle the taste buds but rarely satisfy.

Certainly the support provided for people with facial disfigurements led by burns victim James Partridge and psychologist Nicola Ramsey has yielded encouraging results, helping them to become more outgoing in social encounters by encouraging them, for example, to initiate eye contact.

The repeated key quotation in Cole's book is from Maurice Merleau-Ponty: "I live in the facial expression of the other, as I feel him living in mine." It is this assertion that has guided Cole in his search for the experiences of those for whom either emitting or receiving facial expressions is impossible. But, interesting though these anecdotal insights unquestionably are, this is specious science. It is, arguably, good journalism from which systematic studies governed by good theoretical principles could ensue.

Bruce and Young's book accompanies an exhibition on "The Science of the Face" at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. Not surprisingly, then, it is lavishly and beautifully illustrated. It provides the most extensive and exhaustive collection of face-science material ever published.

The accompanying text is no less impressive. This is no coffee-table tome to be casually inspected from time to time. The authors first distil much of what is known about the way we perceive objects such as faces, and how light, colour and contour are combined in the brain to give rise to our conscious awareness of things. Then Bruce and Young explain how we recognise faces, why, for example, upside-down faces are so hard to identify and what makes some faces more memorable than others. They also describe the stages leading from a raw percept to knowing exactly who someone is and, in another chapter, they outline what can go wrong with this process following brain injury. Prosopagnosia, for example, is a neurological condition in which previously familiar faces have no meaning and the patient has to resort to voice recognition and so on, which illustrates just how specific the condition is.

Moreover, prosopagnosics can often read facial expressions. Unlike some of the cases described by Cole, they can infer the moods and intentions of others, despite being entirely unable to identify them. Those with neurological damage elsewhere, however, may reveal specific problems with expressions. The amygdala, for example, seems to control anger and fear and damage to it can result in an inability to recognise those two emotional states on the faces of others. Bruce and Young examine such findings within a wider, evolutionary context in which the utility of being able accurately to recognise the individuality of a face and read moment-by-moment changes in it are cogently explored.

It would be invidious to make any direct comparisons between About Face and In the Eye of the Beholder. They are about as different as two books on the same topic can be. They should be regarded, at least in part, as complementary. Cole's experiential reports of the way people's lives have been altered or even blighted, by their face-related disabilities, albeit limited, provides a supplement to the tightly argued exposition by Bruce and Young of the by now huge range of experimental data on face processing, most of which has been collected by British scientists.

Hadyn D. Ellis is professor of psychology and pro vice-chancellor, University of Cardiff.

About Face

Author - Jonathan Cole
ISBN - 0 262 03246 5
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 223

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