- The Psychology of Design
- 1. What you See isn't what your Brain Gets
- 2. Peripheral Vision is used more than Central Vision to get the Gist of what you See
- 3. People Identify Objects by Recognizing Patterns
- 4. There's a Special Part of the Brain Just for Recognizing Faces
4. There’s a Special Part of the Brain Just for Recognizing Faces
Imagine that you’re walking down a busy street in a large city when you suddenly see the face of a family member. Even if you were not expecting to see this person and even if there are dozens or even hundreds of people in your visual field, you will immediately recognize him or her as your relative. You’ll also have an accompanying emotional response, be it love, hate, fear, or otherwise.
Although the visual cortex is huge and takes up significant brain resources, there is a special part of the brain outside the visual cortex whose sole purpose is to recognize faces. Identified by Nancy Kanwisher (1997), the fusiform face area (FFA) allows faces to bypass the brain’s usual interpretive channels and helps us identify them more quickly than objects. The FFA is also near the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center.
This means that faces grab our attention and also evoke an emotional response. If you show faces in your design, on a page or screen, it will grab attention immediately and convey emotional information.
If you want to use faces to grab attention and evoke an emotional response, make sure that the face is facing forward (not in profile), large enough to be easily seen, and showing the emotion you want to convey.
Eye-tracking research shows that if a face in a picture looks away from us and toward a product on a web page (Figure 4.1), we tend to also look at the product.
FIGURE 4.1 We look where the person looks
But remember, just because people look at something, it doesn’t mean they’re paying attention. You’ll have to decide whether you want to establish an emotional connection (the face looking right at the viewer) or to direct attention (the face looking directly at a product).
Research by Catherine Mondloch et al. (1999) shows that newborns less than an hour old prefer looking at something that has facial features. The FFA’s sensitivity to faces appears to be something we are born with.
Christine Looser and T. Wheatley (2010) took pictures of people and then morphed them in stages into inanimate mannequin faces. In the research, subjects are shown the stages and asked to decide when the picture is no longer a human and alive. Figure 4.2 shows examples of the pictures. Their research found that subjects say the pictures no longer show someone who is alive at about the 75 percent mark. They also found that people primarily use the eyes to decide whether a picture shows someone who is human and alive.
FIGURE 4.2 An example of Looser and Wheatley’s people-to-mannequin faces