Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
2 June 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 11:54am

Why do human faces look so different? The evolutionary reasons we can recognise people

A radio report had me up half the night performing multiple online facial recognition tests.

By Antonia Quirke

Could you be a “super-recogniser”? About three million people have attempted to find out if they have the powerful ability to minutely identify barely glimpsed human faces, but only a handful exist. A report on the BBC World Service’s CrowdScience (29 May, 2.30pm) had me up half the night performing multiple online facial recognition tests. “Why do human faces look so different?” was the question the show initially asked, and the answers to this were fantastically interesting.

As a species, one anthropologist explained, “being recognisable allowed us to avoid punishment that was meant for others . . . If we didn’t look so individual we might accidentally reward the wrong person.” It’s all about not getting whipped, or guaranteeing getting a bun. Take that, Ophelia (“Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be”).

Some people can recognise a stranger “they saw on a bus five years ago”. Others have that mysterious condition, prosopagnosia, or “face-blindness”. My friend Niki has something approximating, and struggles at times to recognise even her husband (don’t start). She describes a sensation, like hearing chimes in the distance, whenever some bloke approaches her in the supermarket holding up two brands of cereal. The chimes grow to a deafening peak as his face slowly drops into place.

So, what of your correspondent, performing tests on the University of Greenwich website, in which certain faces loom and recede for six seconds, and then you must follow one individual for hours through various unnatural disguises – memorably, one with everything beyond his hairline blocked out by an immense black cloak, rather like Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal?

Well, I kept recognising him! Although it did remind me a little of when I was young and my brain wasn’t yet a cabbage, and I was watching movies for the first time, and I spotted a magnificent brunette in Women in Love, and then also in The Go Between, and then also in Britannia Hospital, and thought to myself My God, I have tapped the fan and the universe has opened. But it turned out to be Alan Bates – and I wasn’t a super recogniser but someone who had just joined a video shop. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning