What Makes a Face? Art and Science Team Up to Find Out

From the man in the moon to the slots of an electrical outlet, people can spot faces just about everywhere.

As part of a larger Bass Connections project exploring how our brains make sense of faces, a Duke team of students and faculty is using state-of-the-art eye-tracking to examine how the presence of faces — from the purely representational to the highly abstract — influences our perception of art.

The Making Faces exhibit is on display in the Nasher Museum of Art’s Academic Focus Gallery through July 24th.

The artworks they examined are currently on display at the Nasher Museum of Art in an installation titled, “Making Faces: At the Intersection of Art and Neuroscience.”

“Faces really provide the most absorbing source of information for us as humans,” Duke junior Sophie Katz said during a gallery talk introducing the installation last week. “We are constantly attracted to faces and we see them everywhere. Artists have always had an obsession with faces, and recently scientists have also begun grappling with this obsession.”

Katz said our preoccupation with faces evolved because they provide us with key social cues, including information about another individual’s gender, identity, and emotional state. Studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) even indicate that we have a special area of the brain, called the fusiform face area, that is specifically dedicated to processing facial information.

The team used eye-tracking in the lab and newly developed eye-tracking glasses in the Nasher Museum as volunteers viewed artworks featuring both abstract and representational images of faces. They created “heat maps” from these data to illustrate where viewers gazed most on a piece of art to explore how our facial bias might influence our perception of art.

This interactive website created by the team lets you observe these eye-tracking patterns firsthand.

When looking at faces straight-on, most people direct their attention on the eyes and the mouth, forming a triangular pattern. Katz said the team was surprised to find that this pattern held even when the faces became very abstract.

“Even in a really abstract representation of a face, people still scan it like they would a face. They are looking for the same social information regardless of how abstract the work is,” said Katz.


A demonstration of the eye-tracking technology used to track viewers gaze at the Nasher Museum of Art. Credit: Shariq Iqbal, John Pearson Lab, Duke University.

Sophomore Anuhita Basavaraju pointed out how a Lonnie Holley piece titled “My Tear Becomes the Child,” in which three overlapping faces and a seated figure emerge from a few contoured lines, demonstrates how artists are able to play with our facial perception.

“There really are very few lines being used, but at the same time it’s so intricate, and generates the interesting conversation of how many lines are there, and which face you see first,” said Basavaraju. “That’s what’s so interesting about faces. Because human evolution has made us so drawn towards faces, artists are able to create them out of really very few contours in a really intricate way.”

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Sophomore Anuhita Basavaraju discusses different interpretations of the face in Pablo Picasso’s “Head of a Woman.”

In addition to comparing ambiguous and representational faces, the team also examined how subtle changes to a face, like altering the color contrast or applying a mask, might influence our perception.

Sophomore Eduardo Salgado said that while features like eyes and a nose and mouth are the primary components that allow our brains to construct a face, masks may remove the subtler dimensions of facial expression that we rely on for social cues.

For instance, participants viewing a painting titled “Decompositioning” by artist Jeff Sonhouse, which features a masked man standing before an exploding piano, spent most of their time dwelling on the man’s covered face, despite the violent scene depicted on the rest of the canvas.

“When you cover a face, it’s hard to know what the person is thinking,” Salgado said. “You lack information, and that calls more attention to it. If he wasn’t masked, the focus on his face might have been less intense.”

In connection with the exhibition, Nasher MUSE, DIBS, and the Bass Connections team will host visiting illustrator Hanoch Piven this Thursday April 7th and Friday April 8th  for a lunchtime conversation and hands-on workshop about his work creating portraits with found objects.

Making Faces will be on display in the Nasher Museum of Art’s Academic Focus Gallery through July 24th.

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke


This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 6th, 2016 at 9:20 am and is filed under Art, Behavior/Psychology, Computers/Technology, Neuroscience, Students, Visualization. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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