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How to Read a Face

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Look at the region below the eyes, says a new study. Evolution explains why it works best

When we meet people, where on their face do we focus our gaze to glean maximum information? According to a recent study that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that point of focus is the region right below the eyes.

The researchers, Miguel Eckstein and Matt Peterson from UC Santa Barbara, claim that the reason for this could be that it helps us figure out where a person’s attention is focused, or that we have been trained to look at this area since childhood; looking anywhere else could be construed as impolite. The researchers however add that while we might regard a brief unaware glance at this area as unimportant, it is actually a product of evolution. They claim that the brain uses sophisticated computations to direct eye movements that ensure the highest accuracy in tasks that are evolutionarily important: say, in determining whether an individual is hostile, friendly or a potential mate.

The researchers conducted the study by presenting participants with photos of faces, allowing them time for only a single movement of the eye to determine the person’s identity, gender or emotion. When participants were allowed to choose where to look, they tended to look at the area between and just below the eyes. However, when people were only allowed to look at other parts of the face, their ability to judge identity, expression or gender was comparatively compromised by the restriction.

When the researchers used a sophisticated computer-based programme—that mimics the varying spatial details of human processing across the visual field and integrates all information to make decisions—to identify the optimal part of the face to look at to extract the largest amount of information, the programme’s results also corresponded with the patterns observed in the experiment with participants. At least for the three important scanning tasks investigated—for identity, emotion, and gender—below the eyes is the best place to look, say the scientists, because it allows one to read information from as many features of the face as possible.