Skip to main content

Human Face Detection: How Well Can You Recognize Faces?

I am a psychology post-grad and freelance researcher who finds the human brain and mind an endless field of wonder.

Faces change in different lights which may influence our ability to recognize people we are familiar with.

Faces change in different lights which may influence our ability to recognize people we are familiar with.

A Complex Process

Face detection in humans is a complex process that we have come to depend on. Recognition is how our brain creates and compares descriptions of objects we can see in front of us with descriptions of objects we have previously seen.

In psychology research, face detection is abundant with theories on the mechanisms which drive this ability. Furthermore, those who are unable to recognize faces, a condition termed 'prosopagnosia', provide additional information regarding the processes that may be at work.

Humphreys and Bruce (1989) Object Recognition Model

Humphreys and Bruce (1989) Object Recognition Model

Object Recognition

Recognition starts with how we recognize objects in our everyday world. This involves a number of clear stages involving perception, categorization and naming, as defined by Humphreys and Bruce (1989).

The object naming stage allows us to recognize objects in different ways:

Between-category distinctions: where we name the category the object is in i.e. fruit or furniture.

Within-category distinctions: where we identify the object within that category i.e. for faces, we don’t say ‘faces’ we work out whose face it is.

Much research has centred on whether faces are recognized by the same processes used to recognize objects. The answer has not yet been found but the difference between category distinctions is why face detection is normally studied as a separate topic to object recognition.

In face detection, there are unique issues to be considered, namely:

  1. A face can move, which in turn changes its appearance
  2. such movement can express social or emotional cues
  3. faces can dramatically change over time, such as through hair cuts and aging

There are also many different types of face detection which sets it apart from other recognition processes, for example recognising familiar and unfamiliar faces.

Facial Expressions and Emotions

Generally, we are able to recognize the face we are looking at and the emotion that it is portraying. Faces are very important in conveying emotional state; we are able to judge emotion very accurately from a face and we are very sensitive to eye movements in those around us.

Children are excellent at expressing their emotions through facial expressions.

Children are excellent at expressing their emotions through facial expressions.

Young et al (1993) claimed we have specific processes for recognizing emotions, but these processes are not involved in recognizing identity.

We can tell if a person is angry or happy even if we don’t recognize them, and we need to be able to recognize people in these different emotional states with different facial expressions.

Case Study: Cashiers and Shoppers

Kemp et al (1997) studied how well cashiers match shoppers to credit cards bearing their photographs.

They found that cashiers often accept cards with photos which only bore a resemblance to a shopper and even accepted cards with no resemblance, but they were of the same gender and ethnic background.

Faces can be classed at different levels. We can:

  1. decide that stimulus is a face as opposed to an object
  2. decide if face is male or female
  3. decide on ethic origin and other characteristics
  4. decide if face is familiar or unfamiliar

Such within-category judgement sets face recognition apart from object recognition, and it is considered more visually demanding because such minimal differences can be present between faces.

Face recognition is a similar matching process to object recognition, but there is the need to access relevant semantic information and a person’s name.

Diary Studies of Face Detection

Young et al (1985) conducted a diary study where 22 participants were asked to note mistakes they made in recognizing people over an eight-week period. The categories these mistakes fell into were:

  • Person misidentified: someone unfamiliar misidentified as someone familiar
  • Person unrecognised: someone familiar thought to be someone unfamiliar

Both of these could occur due to poor viewing conditions, for example, it is dark or if you do not know the person very well.

Reading facial expressions can be an important part of face detection.

Reading facial expressions can be an important part of face detection.

Errors in Face Detection

  • Person seemed familiar only: recognized as familiar, but no other information about them is remembered immediately.
  • Difficulty in retrieving full details of person: only some semantic information retrieved but not specifics such as their name

These errors tend to occur when a familiar person is seen outside the context they are normally seen in.

The pattern of these errors suggests that despite the fact we may retrieve previously learnt semantic information about a person without recalling their name—it will never happen other way round—we will never recall a name without recalling relevant semantic information about the person. However, the key point is that before any of this can happen, we must detect that the face is familiar to us.

Case Study: School Teachers and Students

In 1984 Bahrick studied school teachers' recognition of former students who they had taught for over ten weeks, between three to five times a week.

The level of face recognition for those they had taught recently was high, at 69%. This dropped as the number of intervening years increased. After eight years only 26% of former students were correctly recognized.

Lab studies lend support to the notion that different types of information is sequentially accessed.

Hay et al (1991) showed participants 190 famous and unfamiliar faces and asked them to decide if each face was familiar and to state the person’s occupation and their name.

Participants did not retrieve a name without their occupation, which supports the idea that semantic identity information is retrieved before a name.

Information about a person may be apparent to us before we are able to retrieve their name.

Information about a person may be apparent to us before we are able to retrieve their name.

Face Recognition System

Such findings are consistent with the notion that face detection involves a sequence of processes using different types of information. Young et al (1985) refined a cognitive theoretical framework where recognizing a person involves sequences.

On meeting people, we encode their faces which may activate face recognition units (FRUs) which contain stored information about faces we are familiar with. If there is a match, then recognition units are activated and allow access to semantic information about a person’s identity stored in person identity nodes (PINs). Only once a PIN is activated can a name be generated.

IAC Face Recognition Model

Bruce and Young (1986) proposed a similar model where face recognition occurs in clear sequential stages.

In 1990, Burton and Bruce proposed the Interactive Activation and Competition (IAC) Model, which was very much an extension of Bruce and Young’s work. This model suggests that the sequential stages involved are interconnected in an interactive network, hence the term Interactive Activation and Competition. They included semantic information units (SIUs) in the model and suggested FRUs, PINs and SIUs all result in a lexical output representing either words or a name regarding the person in question.

Generated with information from Burton and Bruce (1990).

Generated with information from Burton and Bruce (1990).

The pools are connected by the input systems (FRUs), which join to a common set of person identity nodes (PINs), and these are linked to units containing semantic information (SIUs).

All this information combined works together in an inhibitory and excitatory manner throughout the network until the recognition process is complete. This model explains Young’s diary study results and the use of additional semantic information in the face recognition process.

Face Blindness: 'Prosopagnosia'

Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognise faces whilst maintaining the ability to recognise other objects. Also known as ‘face blindness’, pure prosopagnosia is very rare and there are normally other deficits present.

Key findings from investigation of prosopagnosia:

  • Identification of expression appears to be independent from face identification
  • Face recognition and awareness of it may also be independent of one another

In many cases, the ability to recognise facial expressions may be unaffected.

Covert Recognition

Bauer (1984) studied patients with prosopagnosia and used the skin conductance response (SCR) to monitor changes in automatic nervous system activity when carrying out face recognition tasks. Changes in SCR during such tasks would signal an emotional reaction to stimuli regardless of conscious processing.

One patient, LF, was shown a face and read a list of five names while their SCR was measured. When LF was asked to pick the correct name for the faces he was looking at, he was unable to recognise familiar people from their faces alone. However, LF showed a greater SCR when the correct name was read aloud compared to incorrect names. This suggests that LF was emotionally responding but was not conscious of this response enough to recognise the people in the pictures in terms of their names. This has been termed ‘covert recognition’.

Case Study: Bilateral Brain Injuries

Young et al (1993) conducted a study of ex-serviceman with bilateral brain injuries.

They found subjects with a right hemisphere lesion were selectively impaired in the identification of familiar faces. One subject with the same damage had problems only with matching unfamiliar faces and a number of subjects with left hemisphere damage were found only to be impaired on facial expression tasks.

It is thought that provoked overt recognition can occur under experimental conditions.

Sergent and Poncet (1990) studied a patient 'PV'. When PV was shown eight faces of famous people, she was unable to identify them.

However, when told they all had the same occupation and she looked at the faces again, she was able to identify they were all politicians and name seven of them.

IAC and Covert Recognition

Covert recognition fits with the IAC model in that it could be an example of a weakening in connections between FRUs and PINs. For example, excitation of a corresponding PIN is not raised above the threshold for a face to be recognized.

Informing the patient that the faces are all related by occupation is equivalent to strengthening the PIN to SIU connections. Once strengthened, activation is passed back from shared SIUs to relevant PINs, activating the threshold, and faces are fully recognised.

Inversion Effect

Another interesting finding with face detection research is the 'inversion effect'. This is where inverting or turning upside down visual stimuli impairs our ability to recognise faces compared with ability to recognise objects.

Diamond and Carey (1986) claimed the inversion effect is due to our perceptual mechanisms becoming used to seeing this type of stimuli in a visual upright orientation, therefore this ‘tuning’ is lost when we see a face inverted.

The Complexity of Face Recognition

The case study of PV is useful as it highlights how semantic information of occupation helped the patient to access name information. In the IAC model, this would be explained by this information flowing through the network, adding information, for example, eliminating some possibilities if they did not fit that occupation and highlighting others that did. Links are therefore increased, which leads to the final accurate face recognition.

Evidence from those who have prosopagnosia provides interesting additional information about how our face detection system may operate in what is clearly a complex series of mechanisms which come together to aid our ability to recognize the people around us.


  1. Bahrick, H. P. (1984) "Memory for people" Everyday memory, actions and absent-mindedness, 19-34.
  2. Bauer, R. M. (1984) "Autonomic recognition of names and faces in prosopagnosia: A neuropsychological application of the guilty knowledge test" Neuropsychologia, 22(4), 457-469.
  3. Bruce, V., & Young, A. (1986). "Understanding face recognition" British journal of psychology, 77(3), 305-327.
  4. Burton, A. M., Bruce, V., & Johnston, R. A. (1990) "Understanding face recognition with an interactive activation model" British Journal of Psychology,81(3), 361-380.
  5. Diamond, R., & Carey, S. (1986) "Why faces are and are not special: an effect of expertise" Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115(2), 107.
  6. Hay, D. C., Young, A. W., & Ellis, A. W. (1991) "Routes through the face recognition system" The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 43(4), 761-791.
  7. Humphreys, G. W., & Bruce, V. (1989). Visual cognition.
  8. Sergent, J., & Poncet, M. (1990) "From covert to overt recognition of faces in a prosopagnosic patient" Brain, 113(4), 989-1004.
  9. Young, A. W., Hay, D. C. & Ellis, A. W. (1985) "The faces that launched a thousand slips: Everyday difficulties and errors in recognizing people" British Journal of Psychology, 76, 495-523.
  10. Young, A. W., Newcombe, F., DeHaan, E., Small, M. & Hay, D. C. (1993) "Face perception after brain injury: selective impairments affecting identity and expression" Brain,116, 941-959.

© 2015 PsychGeek


PsychGeek (author) from UK on January 11, 2015:

Ahh the advantages of being a geek! Thank you Frank, much appreciated.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on January 11, 2015:

the research must have been intense, but fun.. great hub my friend :)

PsychGeek (author) from UK on January 11, 2015:

Thank you Stewart for reading and leaving such lovely comments. I am pleased you found the article useful!

Stewart Guy on January 10, 2015:

Hi Pyschgeek, I found this hub fascinating and now understand more of why I can recall that I know this person, but for the life of me cannot recall there name till several hours later when I racked my brain, so to speak, or out of the blue the name just seems to pop into my brain, usually when I have recalled where I know them from etc. Excellent hub, very well written, voted up :-)

PsychGeek (author) from UK on January 08, 2015:

Hi MsDora, thank you for reading and commenting! I do find it so interesting when we try to think about how we recognize people and why we can't sometimes. It's almost like a matching system in our brain trying to find links and associations to give us that semantic information we need to trigger the right name.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 05, 2015:

Very interesting study. I am meeting people here in my home country whom I have not seen for years; some I should know but don't recognize their faces. I find that knowing who they associated with helps. Learned from this article.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on January 05, 2015:

Hi quildon, thank you for reading and commenting, I am glad you found the article interesting! Putting this together really made me think about how I recognize people and the mistakes I make. We take the skill so much for granted, it must be incredibly difficult if you are unable do it.

Angela Joseph from Florida on January 04, 2015:

Hi PsychGeek, this is so interesting. It's the first time I'm seeing the word, although I have experienced, much to my embarrassment, not recognizing faces when seen outside their normal context, as you mentioned. Also, I can recognize a face without recalling the name, but can later find the person's name on a list. Thanks for sharing this information, and thanks for following me on hubpages.