Here’s Looking at You Kid

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  – Jonathan Swift

Are you being well read?

Is vision the social sense?  I read one of the references to this piece sat in a local coffee shop, and although mostly engaged in making notes on our ability to recognise faces, couldn’t help but look around.  Some were sat on their own in silent contemplation of their coffee (and often their homework), but most were engaged in conversation with friends and colleagues, and I felt that I could understand much of their feelings just by studying their faces.  Although (as in many other places) there was a typical mix of backgrounds (ethnic, age, sex) which included several non-Singaporean, I didn’t have any trouble interpreting the intentions of and sometimes the relationships between those sat around me.

We are all face experts, even at quite a young age.  An hour after we are born we prefer to look at facial drawings whose features are more anatomically correct.  By four days, we can recognise our mother’s face in a video, and at two weeks we can imitate many of our parents’ expressions.  These are impressive feats given that our visual perception is not fully developed until much later, and must be providing very fuzzy images at best.  In fact, the full range of our facial specialisation isn’t in place until we reach adolescence, when we are tuned into not just the individual features of faces, but their arrangement or configuration (which is why it’s so difficult to interpret faces which are shown upside down).  If a picture is made very blurry we can still recognise the person, because we can still see this configuration, but even a very sharp picture seen the wrong way up is very difficult to read.

In fact we are so good at faces, we really don’t like it when something which is very close to reality shows minor imperfections,  The ‘uncanny valley’ is a phenomenon that has been noticed by film makers and robot designers among others.  In most animations, or when robots are not designed to appear human, we tend to discount their lack of reality and enjoy them for what they are.  But as they move closer and closer to real life we become much more attuned to small imperfections.  It can be very creepy or even scary when something looks very human, but there is something about it that you know is not quite right (inducing the same feeling as a zombie or corpse).  At this point, our acceptance drops dramatically, to the box office shame of some past attempts at facial realism such as Beowulf and Resident Evil.

Everyone is sensitive

A normal facial picture not only gives information about the configuration, but enhances our sensitivity to small facial details, so our memory of a nose or moustache (I believe there are still a few around), is much better when we see it in the context of the full face rather than on it’s own.  We also recognise faces by the way that they move (notice that young babies first recognise their mothers in video before static pictures).  You would recognise most of your friends and families just from dots placed randomly across their face, as long as you can see the face moving.  We all have distinct and subtle ways of moving our facial muscles when we laugh, smile and yawn.

We detect faces twice as quickly as other images, and even faster if they show emotion, and it’s almost impossible to ignore a face which appears in your field of view.  From a face we can determine who someone is, their gender and genetic health, their emotional state and intentions, and of course their reproductive potential.  We can also understand their linguistic messaging if we lip read.

More importantly we use our own face to perceive the expressions of others.  The most important information we see in a face are the owner’s feelings: do they intend harm or affection, do they need consolation or privacy?  Automatically are reactions are also communicated in our own expressions, and so a loosely choreographed dance between two faces begins, out of which can emerge empathy or antipathy (and sometimes even seduction or a battle for dominance).  Much of this is unconscious, and takes place even when we see subliminal expressions in others (those which we are not conscious of).  The impact of subliminal expressions has been shown repeatedly – if you see a face which expresses anger , disgust or sorrow, even though you are not aware of the face, you will rate your mood negatively than if you see more neutral expressions.  And we have all experienced the tendency to subtly mimic the expressions, accents and mannerisms of others (the chameleon effect).  This is all part of improving our own perceptual abilities – memory and skills are all about repetition!

Seeing empathy

We all know that smiles are infectious, and minor changes in our own facial expressions, triggered by others, help us to understand their feelings (imitation is the basis of understanding).  I only know what you feel, when I can feel it for myself.

Our visual perception is primarily a system for detecting threats and opportunities in the outside environment, as we wrote about in The Importance of Feedback.  As with other senses, visual perception is much more proactive than passive, creating a ‘virtual’ world for us from the inputs it receives from the eyes and other senses.  Vision tends to dominate the other senses, as it is more reliable, and also dominates our physiology with more than 70% of our sense receptors and more than half of our sensory processing.  For example, it is easy to fool someone that an orange drink is lime flavoured by adding green colour, but in the real world, a green coloured drink is lime flavoured 99.9999 % of the time, so our brain rightly chooses to ignore what our taste buds say and sticks with the visual cues.  In fact, our vision can be completely distracting to other senses – which is why we often close our eyes when kissing or touching loved ones.

The social revolution

As man evolved, these threats and opportunities increasingly came from other humans, and in The Vision Revolution, Mark Changizi, presents some interesting new ideas about the evolutionary advantages that our visual system provides.  He claims that human’s specific version of colour vision developed so that we can better interpret the feelings and intentions of others, as our eye’s receptors are particularly well tuned to the range of colours which affect skin and complexion.  This means that we can see how other people feel, giving us great insight into how to react in any social situation.  Changizi also discusses the position of our eyes at the front of our head, which is typical of a predator (the hunter as opposed to the gatherer).  This specific positioning enables us to have x-ray vision in certain environments and see behind obstacles (ie foliage) to what lies behind.  Clearly the evolutionary advantage of this adaptation outweighs the loss of rear vision (something which animals with more lateral eyes have).

Seeing is believing

Vision is the empathic sense.  It helps us to truly understand our friends, family, colleagues, and even our enemies.  Vision is truly the sense of market research.

In order to understand your customer, watch their face.


A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman (1991)

The Brain Book by Rita Carter (2009)

See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses by Lawrence D. Rosenblum (2010)

Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb

The Vision Revolution by Mark Changizi (2010)

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