Recognizing Faces

For several decades, face recognition has become an important issue, not only computer science researchers are interested in it, but also other scientists like neuroscientists and psychologists. Many websites are established to advocate for the science of face recognition. Law enforcements even develop the technology of recognizing faces to detect terrorists as well as criminals. In police departments, special rooms with one-side transparent wall to identify the criminal among the line-up people have been set. Due to the usefulness of the science of face recognition, psychology nowadays considers the recognition of faces as the most important, significant, and frequent recognition in the study of recognition of stimuli (Robinson Riegler & Robinson Riegler, 2008, p.177).

Indeed, the recognition of faces are very important in people’s daily live. In case people are unable to recognize faces, they will be awash in a sea of strangers (Robinson Riegler & Robinson Riegler, 2008, p. 177) Consequently, they will lose the connections between them and the society and, of course, are not able to identify themselves. Once losing identities, people will suffer from a severe illness called prosopagnosia, the symptom of losing ability to recognize familiar faces. There was a story about Albert Einstein, when traveling by train, thanked a young girl who picked up his hat for him: “Thank you, young girl. May I know your name?”. The young girl shyly answered, “I’m Eleanor Einstein, Dad!”. Farah (1992) recalled a story about a man who was sitting in a club and questioned about another man who also starred at him. He asked the server of the club to find out who that stranger was and knew that the stranger was his own reflection in a mirror. (Robinson Riegler & Robinson Riegler, 2008, p.177). Many people around us suffer from this illness. Sometimes, we do, too. We may be humiliating ourselves when meeting someone whose faces are very familiar but we are unable to identify him or her. Worse than that, the people who have familiar faces talked with us, asked us some questions about our families, and show their cares for our individual needs, but, unluckily, even if we break our brains, we still forget their names or their characteristics.

Generally speaking, recognizing familiar faces is already a difficult task for a  number of people especially the seniors whose memories are fading out. Seeing an upside down picture is still harder. According to Yin (1969) in Robinson Riegler & Robinson Riegler (2008), face inversion disrupts the effect of face recognition disproportionately. Most of us will not be able to recognize the whole picture; some people can not detect some tiny changes in the pictures. From the inversion effect, Diamond and Carey (1986) in Robinson Riegler & Robinson Riegler (2008) clarify the reason why there is a difference in recognition of faces. According to Diamond and Carey, there are three issues related to the differentiating of faces: first-order relational information, second order relational information, and practice trials.

First-order relational information is the information about the parts of the object that is observed and the relationship among the details of the object. For example, a human face consists of a forehead, two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. With this basic information, we can differentiate a human face from an animal face, a male face from a female face, a senior from a young man, etc. However, those characteristics are not enough to recognize a familiar face. We still get problem with identification the names, behaviors, and characteristics. Therefore, it is necessary to have the second-order relational information or the information involves with comparing the first-order information to the typical or average features (Robinson Riegler & Robinson Riegler, 2008. Without it, the recognition of an up-side-down picture seems unavailable for many people, although they have a numerous practice trials that help them store the special traits of familiar faces in their minds. Scientifically, the part of our brains that is partly responsible for our ability to recognize familiar faces is call the temporal lobe of the brains. University of Washington stated that, some neurons in the temporal lobe respond to particular features of faces. Gradually, the information becomes Long Term Memory. And, that memory can be recalled anytime. Whoever suffers damage to the temporal lobe, the person who has prosopagnosia, will lose the ability to recognize and identify familiar faces because of less of activities at this part of the brains and lack of Long Term Memory. Speaking in other words, if people have more practice trials, their temporal lobes will conduct more activities and will work better than who did not practice often. By the same reason, recognizing faces is faster than judging other objects like houses of planes because people usually look at faces much more than do it at houses or planes. Of course, judging the upright positioned pictures are much easier than doing that on up-side-down ones.

Practically, when practicing on face recognition, we see that the second-order relational information is more important than the first-order relational information because it focuses on more details of parts of the face. A long and narrow couple of eyes, a sharp nose, a wide lips, or big ears…all those details of the faces make the faces unique. When we recognize that unique traits, usually, we encode them as whole configurations. When the pictures of the face are disrupted, the recognition is disrupted also (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson Riegler, p. 180). If we can not retrieve information about a whole configuration, it is also much harder when we must recognize a disrupted picture.

Nowadays, with the help of new technology, law enforcements can verify a terrorist’s face much easier than decade ago.  They can use many different systems. Besides line-up people system, they can use computer-based security system. Facial recognition systems are computer-based security systems that are able to automatically detect and identify human faces. Those useful tools are set at airports, ship docks, and at some country borders. Moreover, three-dimensional models of a person's face based on a digital photograph in order to create more nodal points for comparison is used, too. However, such technology confronts some errors. Many people complained that those appliances are not perfect. Sometimes, they make errors, and cause many problems to innocent people.  Some information about the errors of the system retrieved from the website named  http://epic.org/privacy/facerecognition, shows many mistakes that the system of face recognition has made. Throughout a testing period, the systems correctly identified the volunteers 153 times and failed to identify the volunteers 96 times.

According to Kanwisher, 2006, in Robinson Riegler & Robinson Riegler, face recognition is an important activity of our brains and is a specialized module. It is a revolutionary sense. Face recognition has different mechanism with other object recognition. However, some psychologists like Gauthier & Curby, 2005 and Tanaka, 2001, cited that face recognition is not specialized module. It is just perceptual expertise. Diamond and Carey, 1986, stated that when judging an up-side-down picture of a dog, only dog experts can recognize the differences. Anyway, face recognition is not special tool for only human beings. Some kinds of animals, especially dogs and home breeding animals can have it, too.



          Face recognition is retrieved on July 13, 2008 from:


          Face recognition is retrieved on July 13, 2008 from:


Robinson-Riegler, G. & Robison Riegler, B. (2008). Cognitive Psychology:

Applying the Science of the Mind. 2nd. Edition. Allyn and Bacon.