Expert Explores Face Recognition and Racial Imaging at SMC


Dryden Hall was quiet as I stared at my reflection in the Human Race Machine, a device created by Nancy Burson that allowed students, faculty and staff an opportunity to see themselves as they might look if they were another race. I moved the cursor and chose African American. My image morphed ever so slightly - eyes larger, nose a bit wider, skin color darker, lips fuller - yet all recognition was gone. Why couldn't I see the 'old me' inside this new image?

The Race Machine was one of a series of events on the Saint Mary's campus exploring diversity in recent months including a talk by Bruno Rossion, Ph.D., an international expert on face recognition as part of the Brousseau Lecture Series sponsored by the School of Science.

Rossion explained that when the human mind processes the features of a human face of a different race, it computes the image differently than if it is viewing a face of its own race. Known as the "other-race face effect," Rossion said people who live in regions lacking a diverse population often have difficulty recognizing faces with different ethnic origins, often immediately categorizing them by race versus processing distinguishing features more holistically.

"We recognize faces in less than a second, using a large set of cues including shape, texture, color and distance between facial features," Rossion said. "Yet a number of experiments show that the same features organized in different areas of the face change the entire perception."

SMC sophomore Paula Miller"s experience with the Human Race Machine created perceptions of character as well. "Some images looked sadder, some looked more intelligent," she said. And for others who wrote comments after viewing their altered Human Race Machine images, their perceptions of which race would have the greatest difficulty in society were altered as well.

"A Middle Eastern face would change the way I am seen in the world," one student wrote. "Usually we think of race as black and white. But right now, in this world, a Middle Eastern look would change my life the most."

So how can Saint Mary's utilize this information to enhance diversity on campus? Recognizing how we process information, Rossion said, and how it affects our perceptions, is key. A 2005 Psychological Science article noted that positive emotion can eliminate the own-race bias: "Positive affect is known to produce more inclusive categorization strategies, which increase perceived similarities between social groups."

Understanding how the brain analyzes facial cues is the first step, said Rossion, who has done extensive research on patients suffering from Prosopagnosia, a disorder which causes face recognition impairment despite normal vision.

For Saint Mary's sophomore Ted Kebede, who tried different racial images in the Human Race Machine, the process was simply a fun experiment. "I tried it with a friend who is Caucasian," he said. "We tried to morph our faces together to give us an idea of what our two races would look like. I didn't look the same as a different race," he said. "I couldn't recognize myself."

--Jennifer Wake
Office of College Communications