October 3, 2011

At face value: The amygdala recognizes the whole, not parts

Yesterday I was scanning through my iPhoto library when I came across some photos I had taken of my friends' eyes—just their eyes—from my freshman year of undergrad (it was finals week, and we were playing pool.

I can't claim the best study habits, but I got into grad school, alright?).

I turned to my boyfriend and had him identify whose eyes they were. To my surprise, he didn't get all of them correct, and he hesitated on most.

Aren't a person's eyes their most identifying feature?

As it turns out, a recent study published in Current Biology claims that the brain is wired to recognize whole faces, not individual parts.

Responsible for emotion and fear, a structure in the brain called the amygdala is involved in face recognition. Caltech researchers found that while the amygdala responded strongly to pictures of whole faces, weaker responses were elicited when only parts were displayed.

No previous studies have shown such a strong selectivity for face recognition, and the results were surprising. The researchers reason that while the brain is concerned with representing the entire face, it also functions to be highly sensitive to anything wrong with it, such as a missing part—in that way, senior researcher Ralph Adolphs claims, the brain may "ensure that we do not mistake one person for another and help us keep track of many individuals."

These findings may have implications in such disorders as autism, in which roughly 65% of sufferers have difficulty recognizing faces.

In the meantime, I won't tell my girl friend about the bf's faux pax. Because while I forgive him, the amygdala also perceives ignorance, you see...

Photo courtesy Lucy Lightning. Originally reported by Deccan Herald.

Ueli Rutishauser, Oana Tudusciuc, Dirk Neumann, Adam N. Mamelak, A. Christopher Heller, Ian B. Ross, Linda Philpott, William W. Sutherling, & Ralph Adolphs (2011). Single-Unit Responses Selective for Whole Faces in the Human Amygdala Current Biology : 10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.035


  1. I can tell you that when looking at the eyes, my first reaction was to look at eyebrow shape and nose curvature, even though they were barely part of the picture, mostly because a number of your friends have brown eyes : P

  2. Exactly! Because your brain only recognizes face parts when you can put them in context with other features like the nose and eyebrows. Maybe I should refer to "my boyfriend" as "Largian" on this blog.


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