Books : reviews

Vicki Bruce, Andy Young.
In the Eye of the Beholder: the science of face perception.
OUP. 1998

The human face has such important biological and social functions that several regions of the brain are involved in processing information from faces. Babies have an innate interest in facial patterns, and from this early start all of us become expert perceivers of faces – able to make sophisticated judgements about them, for example using subtle cues from head shape and skin texture when estimating age. A universally important focus of communication, we use our faces for speaking and to express emotions, the most widely investigated social signals. We use faces to identify friends and acquaintances, to detect family resemblances, and to judge attractiveness. The face is the most commonly used means of identifying wanted people, in Identikit or Photofit pictures, and caricaturing facial features is widely used in cartoons.

Scientists have recently made tremendous progress in understanding how and why the human brain extracts so much information from faces, but artists have been aware of the phenomenon for centuries and reflected it in their drawing, painting, and sculpture. Vicki Bruce and Andy Young’s unique and fascinating book brings together science and art, to show how our understanding of the science of face perception can inform us about what happens when we look at faces. Each chapter combines state-of-the-art science with computer-manipulated graphics and reproductions of portraits from the extensive collections of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

This is a highly readable, lavishly illustrated introduction to the science of face perception. It will be of interest to anyone who has ever wondered why faces are so special to us, and how we manage to be so exquisitely sensitive to their nuances.