Culture Shapes How We Look At Faces
I JUST now got the email for this article out right this minute in PLoS ONE, and funnily enough, it goes along with something I think I saw on Yahoo, as well as a book I read recently.  It’s such a small, internet connected world after all…

Blais et al. “Culture shapes how we look at faces”  PLoS ONE, 3(8), August 2008.

First of all, the book I read recently.  “Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty” by Nancy Etcoff.  It does a pretty good job of explaining in layman’s terms WHY we have the standards of beauty that we do.  In many cases it all boils down to symmetry.  0.7 waist-to-hip ratio, eyes set the same difference from the nose, no hunchbacks, people with elephantitis of the left testicle need not apply.  However, within the standards of beauty we have set for maximum health and fertility in our offspring, there is a pretty good amount of variability involved. 

For example, eye size.  I found this over at Inventorspot, and I think it was also covered on Yahoo for about five seconds.  In the anime genre popular in Japan, the girls have CRAZY huge eyes (and crazy huge other things, especially for girls who are supposed to be 12…).  The huge eyes are somewhat out of proportion to the rest of the face, but when in symmetry with each other, give a wide-eyed innocent look that is very youthful.  This is not specific to Japan, after all, isn’t it America who is currently crazed with Botox to widen up those eyes? 

Big eyes have been signs of beauty and innocence throughout history.  Solomon praised the “dove’s eyes” of his love (on the other hand, he also said her teeth were like sheep…), and ill-fated Anne Boleyn was known for her eyes that “invited conversation”.  And now, you can get your OWN big eyes.  Big, scary, anime eyes.  There are now extra-wide contacts that put a ring of color around your iris, making your eyes seem artifically large.  I personally think they look really scary, but perhaps my standards of beauty aren’t up to snuff.

Other body parts (usually on women) vary by culture in their attractive attributes.  Large breasts are not necessarily the best, and noses can be large, small, turned up, or hooked, provided they are symmetrical.  It’s clear that while we have certain attractiveness features embedded in to help us choose healthy mates, there’s a lot of leeway on which culture can act.   The paper published in PLoS ONE says a good bit more than that.  It says that culture may affect one of the deepest perceptual mechansims:  face recognition.

Face recognition is something that is crucial to the very visually-oriented homo sapiens (and something that gets really unnerving when you keep imaging faces in dark windows after watching horror movies).  This is more than just attractiveness, it’s a measure of who you do and don’t know, and, even more importantly, how they feel towards you.  Until recently, scientists believed that face recognition was independant of culture.  You always look for two eyes and one mouth.  Even newborn babies can recognize and react to a basic line drawing of a face. 

Most people believe that you only needed a small number of inputs for your brain to output “face”.  Yarbus called these inputs “foveal fixations” (your fovea is the area of your eye where your vision is most acute, when you shift your vision to focus on something, you fix your fovea on it), and they always appeared to take place in a sequence.  Foveal fixations happened in a triangle over the eyes and mouth, with more fixation on the eyes.  This is important both for facial recognition and for the processing of other people’s facial expressions.  The most expression in the face is obviously around the eyes and mouth, with the mouth being general (smiling, frowning, snarling, etc), and the eyes giving more detailed insight. 

It was thought that this triangle pattern of inputs on the eyes and mouth was universal, that the sight of a face triggers a sequence of eye movements to extract information, and that this was biologically determined.  But all of these studies had been done in Westerners.  Could you say it was biological when all observations were confined to the same culture?

The researchers tested a large group of people from Eastern and Western cultures on face recognition, of both Eastern and Western faces.  And they found something interesting.  Westerners showed the traditional triangle pattern, fixing on both eyes and the mouth, with more emphasis on the eyes.  People from Eastern cultures, however, showed far more fixation to the CENTER of the face, with comparatively little focus to the eyes and mouth, and a lot more to the nose. 

This finding wowed me.  I was taught as a little neuroscientist that face processing was done primarily by seeing two eyes and a mouth, and that this was the same no matter where you were from.  But now it is clear that the way you process a face has a lot more to do with your culture.  The researchers have several speculations as to why.  In some Eastern cultures, looking someone directly in the eye is considered rude.  A focus to the center of the face may allow people of Eastern cultures more processing of the overall face, rather than just parts as in Western culture.   They go a little bit into how Eastern face processing is more “holistic” (the whole face) while Western face processing is “analytic” (just the eyes).  I don’t know how much I agree with this particular view, but it does seem clear that the culture you are reared in can have strong effects on something as basic as face processing.

As for those crazy anime eyes, could the whole face processing of Eastern cultures make them have more of an emotional impact on face processing? If eyes aren’t focused on in Eastern cultures, the huge eyes of the characters could serve to attract more attention to speed up face processing and emotional connection. But big eyes are valued in Western cultures, too, and you’d think that in Western cultures, with the analytic processing of the eyes in particular, they might just be overwhelming. But cartoons would have the appeal they do if that were the case (can you imagine kids running from Sailor Moon in fear?) So maybe they’re just cute and wide and innocent.

Blais, C., Jack, R.E., Scheepers, C., Fiset, D., Caldara, R., Holcombe, A.O. (2008). Culture Shapes How We Look at Faces. PLoS ONE, 3(8), e3022. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003022

3 Responses

  1. […] week from South Africa. Plenty of good stuff this time around, including Neurotic Physiology on how culture shapes the way we look at faces, the new Neuronism on athletes predicting the future, and Effortless Incitement on how chimpanzees […]

  2. […] at Ionian Enchantment.  And I’m in it!  And he blesses my little heart because he likes my choice.   And I always support people who think I’m nice.  Good stuff in this […]

  3. I enjoyed this post, which seems to apply on the general level (“in most cases…”). There are, of course, those exceptions…

    My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
    Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
    I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
    But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
    And in some perfumes is there more delight
    Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
    I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
    That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
    I grant I never saw a goddess go;
    My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

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