It is fairly easy for people to tell faces apart, especially for people we see on a regular basis. Scientists are now trying to find out just what causes the human brain to tell faces apart.
Macaque monkeys share this ability with humans, and it’s because of specialized neurons in their brains called “face cells,” as reported by a study from the California Institute of Technology. According to NPR, “The cells were coding faces in a very simple way,” Doris Tsao, an author of the study and a professor of biology, explained. “Each neuron was coding a different aspect of the face.”
Reportedly, the team was even able to reconstruct an image using the signals from 205 of the monkey’s “face cell” neurons. In addition, both humans and these monkeys have six separate areas that specialize in processing faces. The process is said to be similar to how humans see color from a mixture of red, blue, and green lights.
The study reportedly took 15 years to complete. “The reason why this is such a big mystery is that, as we all know, it seems like there’s an infinite number of possible faces,” Tsao added.
As Ed Connor, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in the study, put into context, “Matt Damon and Chris Pratt look very different to me…But I cannot tell you what it is that makes Matt Damon look like Matt Damon and Chris Pratt look like Chris Pratt…The process of differentiating faces is so highly developed in the brain, it’s invisible to us.”
Conner also said that, “Neuroscience really gets exciting when it shows you physically what is happening that gives rise to an experience.” He said the findings have some interesting implications. For example, the process could possibly be replicated to help a blind person learn how to recognize a face, even without the ability to see.