Do all white people look the same? I turned on The Bachelorette the other day and found that the answer was “yes, absolutely, at least the men.” And then I looked at Instagram and decided the answer was “oh, yes, the women, too.” But despite the jokes, and, yes, despite the fact that plastic surgery trends allow people to all mold themselves to look exactly the same, a keen eye CAN detect the difference between various white people. And the same is true for every other race of human: despite what my elderly great-aunt thinks, there are differences between black Americans, and Koreans, and Italians. I mean, differences within those groups, though my great-Aunt also cannot distinguish between those groups. She’s super racist, you guys.
But wait! IS my elderly great-aunt really racist because she can’t tell the difference between Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz? Or is her inability due to biological means beyond her control, and she’s racist because of all the other things she thinks and says and does? Or is my elderly great-aunt NOT racist at all, because I actually made her up as a helpful example and in fact none of my relatives, racist or otherwise, live past their 50s? Hmm, makes you think.
Anyway, a new study offers some food for thought on this whole thing: “Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) eliminates the other-race effect (ORE) indexed by the face inversion effect for own versus other-race faces,” published this month in Nature Scientific Reports, presents a clever way to figure out whether my hypothetical great-aunt’s blindness is nature or nurture, and that clever way is “by giving subjects brain damage.”
Let me back up a bit: back in the early 20th century, people noticed that it seemed that they were better at distinguishing between their own race’s faces compared to other races. Psychologists tested it by showing test subjects photos of various people’s faces, and seeing how often people remembered when they had already seen a face before. And yeah, for the most part they found that white people were better at identifying white faces they’d seen before, and the same was true for black people identifying black faces, and other races as well.
And many people thought, well, that’s racism, right? Just a socially constructed bias in which we favor our own race over others and therefore we spend the extra energy to prioritize remembering them.
And then in the 1960s psychologists noticed that when you show people faces that have been flipped upside down, they take longer to recognize whether they’d seen them before, but the same was not true of objects that were NOT faces. This became known as the face inversion effect, and it led to the discovery that there are specific parts of the human brain, like the fusiform face area, that are specifically tasked with recognizing human faces, and not other objects and places. And so many researchers suspected that in general, when we view a face our brain processes it “configurally,” meaning that we don’t just catalog the various parts, like what the nose looks like, what color and shape the eyes are, or how high the cheekbones are. Instead we look at how features relate to each other and how they differ from what we think of as a standard face, leading us to pretty much just remember a holistic face. We just file that complete face away in our brain under the name “Brenda from HR.”
So when we see an inverted photo of a face we know, our fusiform face area has to work together with our object- and place-recognition areas (like the lateral occipital cortex and the parahippocampal place area, respectively) to figure out whether that’s Brenda from HR, Bill Clinton, or a bucket of blue crabs.
If all that IS what’s happening, then maybe the reason why the other-race effect (or ORE) exists is because people process their own race using the face-recognizing area, but other races using all three face/object/place areas. To test that, researchers showed people inverted and normal faces from their own race and other races, and they timed how long it took them to recognize each face. They found that the configural hypothesis might be correct: when a white person looked at a black face, they took just as long to recognize it when it was right-side up as when it was upside down, because they’re processing it the same way each time. And that white person recognized an upside down white person only a bit more quickly than they recognized an upside down black person.
This new study takes it all one step further, by taking about 100 white European students and attaching electrodes to their scalps before giving them the inverted face test. For half of them, the electrodes did nothing. But for the other half, the electrodes effectively knocked their facial recognition areas offline temporarily. They found that the group that was zapped showed a reduction in their ability to recognize faces from their own race, minimizing the other-race effect, and when the photos were inverted the subjects recognized white faces about as often as those from another race.
Pretty interesting! I’ll say that I am personally a bit invested in all of this because I have prosopagnosia, which is the inability (or in my case, great difficulty) in recognizing faces of ANY race. For a long time I assumed I was very socially awkward, and further I assumed I was a bad person who must not care a lot about the people I meet, or else I would make more of an effort to remember what they look like. So I would try really, really hard to memorize key features about a person when I met them, and when I inevitably failed to recognize them the next time I saw them, I would beat myself up about it.
I started to suspect there might be more to it when I was about 20 and had been dating (and living with) a man for several years who had slicked back hair and a goatee. Yes, he was an asshole but that’s not relevant to this story. Anyway, he picked me up after work one day and I hopped in his car and turned to look at him and I saw a complete stranger in the driver’s seat. I apologized profusely for getting in the wrong car and climbed back out. He rolled down the window and shouted for me to come back and only then did I realize that it WAS my boyfriend, but he had buzzed his hair and shaved off his goatee. It was a dramatic change, sure, but you have to understand that from my perspective, I was looking at a complete stranger who I had never seen before in my life. I started searching the internet and found a website from a person describing prosopagnosia and it was like a weight lifted off me. I wasn’t a bad person! I mean, at least not for THAT reason. It was just that I had brain damage! The part of my brain that recognizes faces is there, but it’s malfunctioning a bit. I chalked it up as maybe the result of one of my childhood concussions, or possibly something that has just been with me since birth.
But it was thanks to this recent study that I fell down another rabbit hole and learned that experts suspect that we start categorizing faces as distinct objects really early in our childhood, possibly as infants, which could be why if, for example, we are raised by and around white people, we put white faces in the “face” category and not other races. Studies suggest that this is able to be adjusted: people who spend a lot of time as an adult surrounded by people of another race different from them, like a white person moving to Japan after college, start to process those faces as quickly as their own race.
With that in mind, maybe I don’t have prosopagnosia because of a concussion: if we build up that area of our brain from infancy, what if I just didn’t see enough faces often enough to have a fully developed facial recognition area of my brain? It’s not that I was kept in a cage in the basement for my youth, but I made it to about the age of 10 before anyone noticed that I was pretty damned short-sighted. Literally, not figuratively. I couldn’t see shit. So I wonder if it’s like learning a second language: research shows that the people who have been speaking a second language from an early age are better at learning more languages, because they’ve “primed” that part of their brain. Maybe I just got a late start developing my facial recognition skills and it’s left me more or less permanently behind the rest of the class (although the brain is very plastic and researchers have been able to improve face-blindness with specialized training).
Anyway, I find it all terribly interesting! If you think you may have face-blindness, you can head to faceblind.org to learn more, and you can even sign up to be a participant in future research through Dartmouth. And know that you’re not necessarily a bad person just because you don’t recognize faces, and you’re not a racist because you only recognize faces from your own race. Sure, racism may play a role, but it’s more likely to be one in which we’ve spent a very long time raising our children, particularly our white children, segregated from other races and exposed to TV and magazines and movies and advertisements that almost exclusively features white faces. As we improve the diversity of our neighborhoods and our media, maybe we will all get better at recognizing people from other races.