Bruce and Young's Theory of Face Perception
by Saul McLeod published 2011
Bruce and Young (1986) proposed a top-down approach to face perception, suggesting that recognizing a face requires stored semantic and emotional information, and is more complex than simply adding together a set of features. Face perception is driven by an individual’s prior knowledge and past experience.
For example, when we see someone in the street, we would need to refer back to previously stored information about where we know the person from in order to say that we have recognized them fully.
Bruce and Young's (1986) model of face perception is also a holistic theory.
According to the holistic approach, a face is recognized as a whole, analyzing the relationship between features (i.e. the configuration), feelings aroused by the face and semantic information about the person. Ellis (1975) suggests we have a stored template or pattern for the face of each person we know, and when presented with a face, we try to match this stimulus to our mental pattern.
Clinical evidence (e.g. prosopagnosia & capgras) suggests face perception is extremely complicated. It involves both cognitive and emotional processes. For example, prosopagnosia sufferers cannot cognitively recognize a face, but can report emotional feeling. Capgras sufferers experience cognitive recognition, but have no sense of emotional recognition.
Both cases show how face recognition cannot rely on just features, as prosopagnosia and capgras patients can name and describe individual features of a familiar face. This points to a more holistic model of face recognition. Such as model has been proposed by Bruce and Young (1986).
According to Bruce & Young (see Fig. 1), a face is firstly encoded structurally, meaning we take in the visual information, processing the look of the face. If this matches an existing Face Recognition Unit (FRU), then this will be activated. The FRU contains physical information and semantic knowledge.
Activation of the FRU triggers activation of the Person Identity Node (PIN), giving personal information such as occupation, interests, where we normally meet the person and whether we like them or not.
The final stage in the process is Name Generation. According to Bruce and Young, names are stored separately to the FRUs and PINs, but can only be accessed via the PIN. This would explain the embarrassing experience of knowing lots about a person we meet, but not being able to think of their name.
- Bruce and Young (1986) argued that several different types of information can be obtained from faces, and which correspond to the eight components of their model.
- Familiar and unfamiliar faces are processed in different ways.
- Some components of the model can be used with both familiar and unfamiliar faces (e.g. expression analysis, facial speech analysis, directed visual processing).
- Some components cannot be used with unfamiliar faces (e.g. face recognition units, person identity nodes, name generation).
Critics of the holistic theory say that features too are important, and many studies show this. The most important features for people we know are internal ones like eyes, mouth etc. However, lots of studies show that it is not just the features that are important, but the whole arrangement.
Bruce, V., & Young, A. (1986). Understanding face recognition. British Journal of Psychology, 77, 305–327.
Ellis, H.D. (1975). Recognising faces. British Journal of Psychology, 66, 409-426.
How to cite this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2011). . Retrieved from
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