What’s in a face?

Can facial expressions tell others something about the overall character of a person?

What’s interesting is that when we meet someone for the first time, their facial characteristics (eg face shape, eye shape and colour, hair style and colour), and expressions, are of less importance to our brain than noting their race and gender. This is because our brain tries to process a person’s identity first, and race and gender are a strong part of identity.

Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macnik write in an article titled What’s in a Face? – The human brain is good at identifying faces, but illusions can fool our “face sense”: “Facial expressions play a key role in our everyday social interactions. Even when watching movies or looking at photographs, we spend most of our time looking at the faces they portray. Our intense focus on faces is at the expense of other potentially interesting information, however.”

“Illusions: What’s in a Face?” is a slide show in the Scientific American Mind Matters series on the neuroscience behind visual illusions. It provides illustrations that demonstrate how our face-detection neural machinery can be fooled or overloaded.

Facial expressions can provide information about a person’s mood, but do not reflect their true inner feelings. Facial expressions used in social interactions, (for example during greetings, social crises or times of appeasement), can be the easiest to read and interpret.

Psychologists have long studied why people find certain faces more attractive than others. If we think that faces with symmetrical features are more attractive than others, why do many portrait artists deliberately exaggerate asymmetrical features? Stylisation such as this appears wrong and unflattering, however it often conveys something more meaningful about the sitter’s personality, mood or character than any flattering representation could.

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (July 12, 1884 – January 24, 1920) was an Italian painter and sculptor who worked mainly in France. He is known for portraits and nudes in a modern style characterised by elongation of faces and figures. He died at age 35 in Paris of tubercular meningitis. Here are some of his portraits. They seem deceptively simple in their stylisation, and yet, for me, they express an understanding of the personalities and moods of the sitters.

Woman with Red Hair

Woman with Red Hair

Portrait of a Woman in a Black Tie

Portrait of a Woman in a Black Tie

The Black Dress

The Black Dress

Portrait of Max Jacob

Portrait of Max Jacob

The Boy (detail)

The Boy (detail)

Portrait of Chaim Soutine

Portrait of Chaim Soutine

Self Portrait

Self Portrait

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