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.

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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. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning