Facial Cues and the Brain

snap judgments.jpg
As human beings, we can tend to be a little judgmental–sometimes without even realizing it. When we first meet someone, our brains are busy processing facial features, body language, personality traits, etc., within milliseconds of just saying “hello.” So what characteristics make us assume certain things about people we just meet, and can these unconscious first impressions really change the way we perceive someone?

Expanding on this topic, neuroscientist Jon Freeman, Ph.D., spoke to a room crowded with eager listeners as the featured guest in the latest event from the Secret Science Club. As director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences lab at New York University, Freeman devotes all of his research to understanding “split-second social perception”—that is, how our brains use subtle facial cues, personality traits, and emotion to instantly categorize others into social groups. With the help of brain imaging technology (fMRI), electrophysiology (EEG and ERP), and real-time behavioral techniques, Freeman is able to study activity within the brain in hopes of learning more about the phenomena of snap judgments.

His discussion focused mainly on facial cues, noting that “the face is recognized more accurately and more efficiently than any other type of visual stimulus” presented to the brain. Even at the earliest stages of development, newborns are able to track the basic features of a human face: two “dots” as eyes and a nose. This is why we are able to recognize faces even when they don’t exist, he said, such as finding one in the clouds, on the bark of a tree, or in an electrical outlet.

Reasearch for understanding emotions dates back to the 1800s, but it was during the 1970s that six basic emotions were identified: fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, and surprise. As humans produce and perceive these universal visual expressions, Freeman seeks to understand the underlying brain mechanisms that cause us to make snap judgments, particularly for its implications in reducing biases and stereotypes that have been unconsciously embedded into our brains. “These kinds of things can determine who we decide to hire, who we elect as president, who we date, and all sorts of other outcomes,” he said.

According to Freeman, research shows that the thousands of judgments we make (e.g. how trustworthy, dominant, competent, shy, etc., a person is) can be boiled down to two qualities that our brains are trying to assess: intention and ability. The mind ranks people based on these dimensions, trying to determine who will have high intention and high ability, low intention and high ability, and so on.

He continued to show the audience photographed facial expressions as examples of what we generally perceive as trustworthy and threatening faces. Freeman said:

These kinds of perceptions matter…because it predicts leadership attainment…How competent a face appears is significantly predictive of presidential or electoral outcomes…How trustworthy a face appears is significantly predictive of criminal sentencing, including capital punishment…These kinds of personality differences can be quite predictive of a variety of real world outcomes that are clearly very consequential.

Freeman is also the developer of a new software for data collection and analysis called MouseTracker, providing real-time behavioral techniques for his research. For more information and examples on this discussion, visit his lab’s website here.

Interested in attending an event? The Secret Science Club meets every month at Brooklyn’s Bell House and features a variety of lecture topics, guest speakers, music, and a themed drink to accompany the evening’s discussion. Check out their blog for more information.

– Seimi Rurup

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