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Look Below The Eyes
updated: Nov 26, 2012, 11:14 AM
Source: University of California Santa Barbara
To Get the Best Look at a Person's Face, Look Just Below the Eyes,
According to UCSB Researchers
(Santa Barbara, Calif.) -- They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul.
However, to get a real idea of what a person is up to, according to UC Santa Barbara
researchers Miguel Eckstein and Matt Peterson, the best place to check is right below the
eyes. Their findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
"It's pretty fast, it's effortless - we're not really aware of what we're doing,"
said Miguel Eckstein, professor of psychology in the Department of Psychological &
Brain Sciences. Using an eye tracker and more than 100 photos of faces and participants,
Eckstein and graduate research assistant Peterson followed the gaze of the experiment's
participants to determine where they look in the first crucial moment of identifying a
person's identity, gender, and emotional state.
"For the majority of people, the first place we look at is somewhere in the middle,
just below the eyes," Eckstein said. One possible reason could be that we are trained from
youth to look there, because it's polite in some cultures. Or, because it allows us to figure
out where the person's attention is focused.
However, Peterson and Eckstein hypothesize that, despite the ever-so-brief - 250
millisecond - glance, the relatively featureless point of focus, and the fact that we're
usually unaware that we're doing it, the brain is actually using sophisticated
computations to plan an eye movement that ensures the highest accuracy in tasks that are
evolutionarily important in determining flight, fight, or love at first sight.
"When you look at a scene, or at a person's face, you're not just using
information right in front of you," said Peterson. The place where one's glance is aimed
is the place that corresponds to the highest resolution in the eye - the fovea, a slight
depression in the retina at the back of the eye - while regions surrounding the foveal
area - the periphery - allow access to less spatial detail.
However, according to Peterson, at a conversational distance, faces tend to span a
larger area of the visual field. There is information to be gleaned, not just from the face's
eyes, but also from features like the nose or the mouth. But when participants were
directed to try to determine the identity, gender, and emotion of people in the photos by
looking elsewhere - the forehead, the mouth, for instance - they did not perform as
well as they would have by looking close to the eyes.
Using a sophisticated algorithm, which mimics the varying spatial detail of human
processing across the visual field and integrates all information to make decisions,
allowed Peterson and Eckstein to predict what would be the best place within the faces to
look for each of these perceptual tasks. They found that these predicted places varied
moderately across tasks, and closely corresponded to where humans actually do look.
At least for the three important tasks investigated - identity, emotion, and gender
- below the eyes is the optimal place to look, say the scientists, because it allows one to
read information from as many features of the face as possible.
"What the visual system is adept at doing is taking all those pieces of information
from your face and combining them in a statistical manner to make a judgment about
whatever task you're doing," said Eckstein. The area around the eyes contains minute bits
of important information, which require the high resolution processing close to the fovea,
whereas features like the mouth are larger and can be read without a direct gaze.
The study shows that the ability to learn optimal rapid eye movement for
evolutionarily important perceptual tasks is inherent in humans; however, say the
scientists, it is not necessarily consistent behavior for everybody. Eckstein's lab is
currently involved in studying a small subset of people who do not look just below the
eyes to identify a person. Other researchers have shown that East Asians, for instance,
tend look lower on the face when identifying a person's face.
The research by Peterson and Eckstein has resulted in sophisticated new
algorithms to model optimal gaze patterns when looking at faces. The algorithms could
potentially be used to provide insight into conditions like schizophrenia and autism,
which are associated with uncommon gaze patterns, or prosopagnosia - an inability to
recognize someone by his or her face.
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