I recognize you! But how did I do it?

January 13, 2012

Are you someone who easily recognises everyone you've ever met? Or maybe you struggle, even with familiar faces? It is already known that we are better at recognising faces from our own race but researchers have only recently questioned how we assimilate the information we use to recognise people.

New research by the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus has shown that when it comes to recognising people the Malaysian Chinese have adapted their facial recognition techniques to cope with living in a multicultural environment.

The study 'You Look Familiar: How Malaysian Chinese Recognise Faces' was led by Chrystalle B.Y. Tan, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. The results have been published online in the prestigious scientific journal PloS One, This research is the first PhD student publication for Nottingham's School of Psychology in Malaysia.

Chrystalle Tan said: "Our research has shown that Malaysian Chinese adopt a unique looking pattern which differed from both Westerners and Mainland Chinese, possibly due to the multicultural nature of the country."

The ability to recognise different may have social and evolutionary advantages. Human faces provide vital information about a person's identity and characteristics such as gender, age, health and attractiveness. Although we all have the same basic features we have our own distinguishing features and there is evidence that the brain has a specialised mental module dedicated to face processing.

Recognition techniques

Previous research by a group at Glasgow University in Scotland showed that Asians from mainland China use more holistic recognition techniques to recognise faces than Westerners.

  • Chinese focus on the centre of the face in the nose area
  • Westerners focus on a triangular area between the eyes and mouth
  • British born Chinese use both techniques fixating predominantly around either the eyes and mouth, or the nose

Chrystalle said: "The traditional view is that people recognise faces by looking in turn at each eye and then the mouth. This previous research showed us that some Asian groups actually focus on the centre of the face, in the nose area. While Westerners are learning what each separate part of the face looks like - a strategy that could be useful in populations where hair and eye colour vary dramatically, mainland Chinese use a more global strategy, using information about how the features are arranged. Meanwhile British born Chinese use a mixture of both techniques suggesting an increased familiarity with other-race faces which enhances their recognition abilities."

Eye tracking technology

The study by the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus set out to investigate whether exposure and familiarity with other cultures affects our recognition accuracy and eye movement strategies.

The team used specialised eye tracking technology to investigate the visual strategies used to recognise photographs of faces. They recruited 22 Malaysian Chinese student volunteers from across Nottingham's Malaysia campus. The results showed that Malaysian Chinese used a unique mixed strategy by focusing on the eyes and nose more than the mouth.

Chrystalle said: "We have shown that Malaysian Chinese adopt a unique looking pattern which differed from both Westerners and mainland Chinese. This combination of Eastern and Western looking patterns proved advantageous for Malaysian Chinese to accurately recognise Chinese and Caucasian faces."

The study was supervised by Dr Ian Stephen, an expert on face processing and Dr Elizabeth Sheppard, an expert in eye tracking. Dr Stephen said: "We think that people learn how to recognise faces from the faces that they encounter. Although Malaysia is an East Asian country its ethnic composition is highly diverse. The intermediate looking strategy that Malaysian Chinese use allows them to recognise Western faces just as well as Asians."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Neural efficiency hypothesis confirmed

July 27, 2015

One of the big questions intelligence researchers grapple with is just how differences in intelligence are reflected in the human brain. Researchers at ETH Zurich have succeeded in studying further details relating to suspected ...

Fatherhood makes men fat

July 21, 2015

All those leftover pizza crusts you snatch from your kids' plates add up. Men gain weight after they become fathers for the first time whether or not they live with their children, reports a large, new Northwestern Medicine ...

Words jump-start vision, psychologist's study shows

July 21, 2015

Cognitive scientists have come to view the brain as a prediction machine, constantly comparing what is happening around us to expectations based on experience—and considering what should happen next.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

CrisJ8
not rated yet Jan 13, 2012
I take it this research is solely for Chinese culture. I am half Asian, half European, born in Asia, schooled in the States and our family has travelled to 6 continents. Because of our diverse background and travels, my family and I can recognize which country someone comes from depending on their accent, facial features, and mannerisms. What I am more interested in are situations where we know we have met someone before, in one of our travels, perhaps at the age of 10yrs old. As an adult, how do we store/retrieve data quickly on the name of the person, the continent where we met this person as well as the circumstance of the meeting in our teens or younger age?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.