University College Tilburg

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Jeroen Stekelenburg: It is all in the face

Every day I commute from my hometown to Tilburg by public transportation. Before I doze off on the train, I often play a game trying to guess the jobs of my fellow commuters. For that I use different kinds of cues such as clothes (suit, tie, dress, shoes, boots, etc.), hairstyle, notebook (Windows or Apple) but especially the face itself. There is some evidence that people can tell someone’s job just on the basis of facial features.

The participants in a study investigating this very topic were presented two different faces at the same time and were asked which of the two persons had a particular job (either business CEO, military general, sports coach, or politician). The participants were surprisingly accurate in matching a particular face to a particular job. It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss why people possess these abilities. However, I wondered whether people can tell someone’s job by their faces in real-world situations. So that is why I - as a (cognitive neuro) scientist - conduct my own experiments on the train, guessing commuters’ jobs by looking at them. This is not an easy task because people typically don’t like to be stared at. And I’m afraid that my little experiment is fatally flawed because I am unable to validate my predictions about the other commuter’s job because I don’t actually dare to ask my ‘participants’ what they do for a living. Despite my failure, it keeps me busy during the otherwise boring half hour.  

Because of my daily experiments I have come to know the faces of the commuters who regularly travel at the same time as I do, or at least I thought I had. A few weeks ago I was in another town and saw someone walking down the street who looked terribly familiar, but I couldn’t place her. The next morning she was on the same train as I, and upon seeing her the proverbial coin dropped. This so-called ‘butcher-on-the-bus’ phenomenon is not uncommon to most of us and demonstrates that face recognition depends not only on the face itself but also on the situational context. So, not to be able to recognize faces out of context is quite normal. But, when does the inability to recognize familiar faces start to become abnormal? My wife, for example, who also commutes by train, often doesn’t recognize any of the regular commuters. Moreover, on several occasions she even failed to recognize me in a crowd! A test from the cognitive neuropsychology department of our university confirmed that she suffers from a mild form of prosopagnosia (face blindness). Prosopagnosia can either be congenital or the result of brain damage and only affects face perception, leaving visual perception of other objects mostly intact.

Patients with severe prosopagnosia can display odd behaviors as described by neurologist Oliver Sacks (who late in life discovered that he suffered from prosopagnosia himself). He examined a patient (Dr. P.) who was unable to recognize familiar faces. After the examination, the patient wanted to put on his hat. He searched and then grasped for his hat and subsequently tried to put it on his head. This endeavor failed miserably because instead of his hat, he grasped his wife’s head. So he mistook his wife for his hat! While this case is really peculiar, what I find even more amazing is that some people with prosopagnosia are unable to recognize their own face. How can one not recognize one’s own face?

To be honest, I did not really believe this until I saw a video that was used in one of our cognitive neuroscience courses. It was about an elderly woman who could not recognize her own face. When she saw her reflection in a window or a mirror, she would think that there was someone else in the house, dressed up as her. The clinical neuropsychologist in the video devised a test in which the patient had to stand in front of a mirror that was tilted in such a way that she could see her clothes but not her face. The clinical neuropsychologist then asked her who the person in the mirror was and she responded that it was herself because she recognized the clothes she was wearing. After this, she was asked to step up to the mirror, which revealed her face in the mirror. She immediately cried out: “There’s that other woman again!”

People with prosopagnosia can to a certain degree identify other people by focusing on one particular facial feature such as the nose. Another strategy, as applied by patient Dr. P., is using the others’ voice for identification. My wife also identifies me on the basis of my voice when she cannot recognize me amongst others in a crowd. By relying on the voice she has become quite an expert in recognizing voices (especially of famous people). For example, she immediately recognizes any famous persons behind voice-overs in TV commercials. This ability is totally strange to me. What is more, I tend to have difficulty recognizing familiar voices, especially over the phone, which sometimes leads to awkward situations, particularly when the caller does not reveal his or her name. Maybe I suffer from a mild form of phonagnosia? According to my wife I do because when I am in a crowd I tend not to respond to her voice when she calls me. But, I wonder whether it is that her voice does not ring a bell in my brain or whether there are more obvious reasons why a husband sometimes fails to adequately respond to his wife. Anyway, we are like the movie ‘See no evil, hear no evil’: sometimes she denies my visual existence and sometimes I deny her auditory existence. I guess that makes us ‘The odd couple’.


Jeroen Stekelenburg