The Neuroscience of Facial Recognition

By Richard Hill MA, MEd, Dip Prof Couns

When we look at a face, it is not just a special object amongst objects. The face is uniquely perceived and interpreted. The brain has even evolved a dedicated area in the neural landscape, the fusiform face area or FFA (Kanwisher et al, 1997), to specialise in facial recognition. This is part of a complex visual system that can determine a surprising number of things about another person.

The information that is found in a face, before a word is uttered or an action taken, lays the foundation for any ensuing interaction. From the safety of distance we are able to determine gender, mood, similarities and differences to the usual, focus of attention (direction of gaze), general state of health and, to some extent, interpersonal intentions (Steeves et al., 2006). All of this just from a face and a system of specially evolved neural hardware and specially developed neural connections.

I’m sure the importance of the face is not lost on anyone. The therapeutic process is dependent on many clues ranging from the spoken word to tone of voice and to gestures. Face recognition is simply fundamental to the process of appreciating another person and in the process of establishing rapport. Hence, it is not entirely surprising to discover that we have evolved a particular set of processes for appreciating faces. But it is fascinating.

What has the brain got to do with it?

It was originally thought that face recognition was simply a part of our general process of object recognition (Gruter et al., 2008). Faces are, when you think about it, a collection of object shapes – ovals, squares, rectangles etc. As is so often the case, we have learnt about specific capacities of the brain through people who have suffered a deficit. The inability to recognise faces (and all the associated losses of appreciating facial expression) has an official name – prosopagnosia.

The symptoms of prosopagnosia were first described by Wilbrand in 1892, but the term was coined by Joachim Bodamer in 1947 (Takamura 1996), so this is a fairly recent development in our understanding. Prosopagnosia was found to be directly related to damage caused to the right lateral temporal lobe area of the fusiform gyrus. Further research showed that it was a particular area in the fusiform gyrus which has been called the fusiform face area.

Not being able to accurately recognise faces can create a great deal of social difficulty. Oliver Sacks made this condition well known in his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1988). The man who suffered from prosopagnosia was unable to recognise his wife from her face and would use an object to know who she was. Finding a woman in the right hat should be his wife. You can imagine the problem when she wore a hat that was popular at the time. It was also found that prosopagnosia was not restricted to brain damage. Around 2.5% of the population have some degree of difficulty with face recognition as a congenital condition (Gruter et al., 2008). Ironically, Oliver Sacks himself realised that he and other members of his family had a form of developmental prosopagnosia.

Researchers found some very interesting things about the way that we recognise faces. Unlike most objects, we recognise faces that are the right way up and preferably connected to a body. The FFA fires for upright faces, but not for inverted faces or scrambled faces. If you look at the images of Barack Obama when inverted and then turn the page around so the images are the right way up you will see that our ability to interpret information accurately about faces is dependent on them being upright (Grill-Spector et al., 2004).


The FFA is far more responsive to human faces than animal faces (Kanwisher et al., 1999), which points toward the importance of social interaction in the selective evolution of the FFA and the face recognition circuits. The FFA, however, is not the only area responsible for face recognition. The brain is an associative and integrating mechanism. In order to create our conscious perception of existence, numerous areas of the brain respond in the effort to create a coherent perception.

Also necessary is an area in the occipital cortex that is known as the Occipital Face Area. If this area is damaged and the FFA is intact, the sufferer has some awareness of the presence of a face, but still no capacity to recognise it. Another part of the circuit of recognition is the superior temporal sulcus, important to our processing of social information including interpreting gaze direction and where emotions are being projected. Facial expressions can trigger activity in the amygdala, especially in response to angry faces (Steves et al., 2006).

When it doesn’t work

Autistic people are known to have difficulty recognising faces in a number of ways. It is not uncommon for an autistic person to avoid looking at faces altogether and even find faces quite frightening. Research by Pierce et al (2001), has found that they use an entirely different neural system for face recognition. This gives us added insight into the social deficits of this disorder. Neural response was observed in the frontal cortex as well as the amygdale in the limbic area. This reflects both an emotional response and an effort to try and make sense of the information through thinking. It is hard to imagine what it is like to look at a face and not understand what the facial expressions are trying to express. It can be very frightening and confusing.

One of the most important things that Pierce’s group discusses is the importance of developing face recognition skills (and the FFA) through practice. Certainly, autistic individuals “…can be thought of as relatively ‘face inexperience’.” (p.2060). Aspergers conditions can also lead to an avoidance of looking at faces early in life. To a lesser extent this may also be true of ‘shy’ (avoidant of novelty) temperaments. It is usual for babies from the beginning of life to take a particular interest in faces as different from objects (Bryant, 1991). Although there is not a lot of research on the development of the FFA and associated circuits, it may be that developments of face recognition skills are time specific. Regardless, it is certainly true that neural development of the FFA begins very early.

What becomes entangled in ‘face inexperience’ is ‘expression inexperience’. There is a stereotype attitude that males are less capable of understanding the subtleties of emotion through facial expression. It said that we have thousands of permutations of facial expression, but our primary facial expression categories are quite simple. This may not be true, but there is a greater tendency in modern western culture for men not to look caringly at other people. The stony-faced, blank stare of the tough ‘Clint Eastwood’ characters in many action films teach the stereotype and should be carefully considered when dealing with male clients.

Paul Ekman (1992) has done much of the research on emotions and facial expressions. He has concluded that there are 6 basic emotions (see image below) and that other emotions can be created out of combinations of these. He tested people of all ages all around the world to find those expressions that are universally recognised. He concludes that anger, fear, surprise, sadness, joy and disgust are the fundamental elements that construct our facial expression communication. If face recognition is impaired then it becomes more difficult to assess what emotion, if any is being conveyed. Autistics find this very difficult, as can those with Aspergers, which also have issues that impair social competence. Reading faces can be tricky at the best of times. Trying to read faces with some form of prosopagnosia just amplifies the problem.

Translation into Practice

When you are treating someone who finds they are lacking in social competence there are a number of avenues to investigate. All too often it can be taken as insensitivity or, worse still, as lack of care or empathy. These may be the issues that arise because of the difficulty, but the problems we see are so often messages about something deeper or more fundamental that needs our attention.

Recognising faces and reading faces is a distinct neurological capacity that can improve with practice. Clients who express a lack of empathy or poor emotive expression can benefit from cognitive training. There is no particular research on the development of empathy by training in face reading skills, but there is a lot of supportive information about brain plasticity and growth based on experience. Working with the client as they look at photographs; talking about the emotional story in films; working with short segments of film to build their capacity to appreciate the emotional flow that emerges from facial expression are all possible techniques that can be employed.

In doing this it may also be possible to assess whether there might be some developmental or traumatic prosopagnosia. Have they ever had a trauma to the head during sport or in an accident, especially in the temporal area? Perhaps the client might show enough difficulty or struggle to consider referring them for an MRI or fMRI? Understanding the way that the brain takes in, manages and interprets the wealth of information that is the face can open up new avenues of therapeutic approach and technique.

This is the whole point of becoming a ‘brain wise’ therapist (Badenoch, 2008). Although there is much we can deduce from our intuition and our own life experience, and there is much that can be achieved as we follow the principles of a well-established therapy – we also work directly with the functions and processes of the brain. We need to understand what happens when areas of the brain are not properly developed or not effectively integrated.

We also need to understand what happens in the brain (and the body, too) when we suffer trauma, disturbance and disruption in our lives. It is, largely, the organ we treat. For the first time in history, we now have a deep and useful knowledge on how the brain works and how to get it working (and this is only the beginning, much about the workings of the human brain is still a mystery, being investigated by enthusiastic scientists around the world). This is a great time to study the brain and develop practical applications of this knowledge to benefit our clients.


  • Badenoch, B. (2008.) Being a Brain-Wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
  • Bryant, P. E. (1991). Face to face with babies. Nature, 354, 19. – Ekman, P. (1992) Are there basic emotions? Psychological Review, 99(3): 550-553.
  • Grill-Spector, K., Knouf, N. & Kanwisher, N. (2004) The fusiform face area subserves face perception, not generic within-category identification. Nature Neuroscience, 7(5): 555-562.
  • Grüter, T., Grüter, M. & Carbon C. C. (2008). Neural and genetic foundations of face recognition and prosopagnosia. Journal of Neuropsychology  2 (1): 79–97
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  • Kanwisher, N., Stanley, D. & Harris, A. (1999). The fusiform face area is selective for faces not animals. NeuroReport, 10(1): 183-187.
  • Pierce, K., Muller, R.-A., Ambrose, J., Allen, G. & Courchesne, E. (2001) Face processing occurs outside the fusiform ‘face area’ in autism; evidence from functional MRI. Brain, 124(10): 2059-2073.
  • Sacks, O. (1988). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. New York, NY: Touchstone.
  • Steeves, J. K. E., Culham, J. C., Duchaine, B. C., Pratesi, C. C., Valyear, K. F., Schindler, I., Humphrey, G. K., Milner, A. D. & Goodale, M. A. (2006) The fusiform face area is not sufficient for face recognition: Evidence from a patient with dense prosopagnosia and no occipital face area. Neuropsychologica, 44: 594-609.
  • Takamura, M.  (1996). Prosopagnosia: A look at the laterality and specificity issues using evidence from neuropsychology and neurophysiology.  The Harvard Brain. Vol. 3 (1): 9-13.

Author Information:

Richard Hill BA (Linguistics), DipProfCouns, MA (Social Ecology), MEd is the resident psychotherapist at the Davis Health Centre in Gordon, Sydney and is director of the MindScience Institute. He holds a BA in linguistics, Diploma of Professional Counselling, Masters of Social Ecology and Masters of Education.

He is a member of the NeuroLeadership Institute, The Creative Skills Training Council and The Global Association for Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies (GAINS) and a regular contributor to their Quarterly magazine.   Richard is mentored by the esteemed Ernest Rossi PhD and is a member of the select International Psychosocial Genomics Research Group. He is regularly published in journals and magazines and has written 2 books, Choose Hope and How the ‘real world’ Is Driving Us Crazy!

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