Scientists morphed celebrity pics to learn how we remember faces

A team of neuroscientists from around the world, including Britain, has been asking people to look at morphed photos of celebrities, such as the mash-up of Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry above. And it’s not just because they want recognition for their Photoshop skills. Well, not entirely.

The researchers’ aim was to discover how our brains respond to ambiguous images, where we’re not entirely sure who we’re looking at. They found that when someone identified one half of the image, the same neuron fired as when they identified that person on their own, but didn’t fire when they recognised the other celebrity in the picture. This means that our brains respond to what we think we’re seeing rather than what we’re actually looking at, supporting the idea that neurons play a huge role in memory, and we construct the world from what we’ve seen before and expect to see again.

The scientists, who come from the University of Leicester, University College London, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the University of Bonn and the University of California Los Angeles have published their results (‘Single-Cell Responses to Face Adaptation in the Human Medial Temporal Lobe’) (natch) in the journal Neuron.

Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga from Leicester said, ‘We are constantly bombarded with noisy and ambiguous sensory information and our brain is constantly making decisions based on such limited data. We indeed see the face of a friend rather than the combination of visual features that compose the person’s face. The neurons we report in this article fire exactly to this, to the subjective perception by the subjects, not to the features of the faces they were seeing.’

Image credit: University of Leicester.

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Diane Shipley