Face recognition


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Bruce and Young (1986)

 Overview of Bruce and Young’s theory

 Stage 1: Individual features are processed along with facial expressions and age.

Stage 3: The face is then looked up in memory to check if it is familiar or not.



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More in depth


As soon as a face is seen the structural encoding area of the brain is activated – this builds a very basic representation of the face in the mind by analysing the expression of each feature (e.g. smiling mouth) in the view-centred description area, simultaneously the individual features are being processed in the expression-independent area.

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The basic first analysis is refined in three ways: First there is a conclusion about the emotional state of the person being looked at (expression analysis). There is focus on the lips and what is being said – if anything (facial speech analysis). Also particular characteristics of the face are noticed, e.g. glasses (directed visual processing) this is an important check for facial recognition.

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The facial recognition units (FRU) work very fast comparing the incoming information to the familiar faces stored in this area of the memory system, working with structural similarities such as shape of nose etc. Surprisingly the next step accesses biographical information held in the Personal identity nodes (PIN) will supply information such as ‘she’s in my psychology class’. Finally (but extremely quickly) name generation  is activated and the viewer, if they know the person can remember their name.

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The cognitive system

Really it is wrong to say this is the final stage because it is involved all the way through the process – it is vast and complicated but for the purpose of this model it holds all the visual memories of faces and the environment they are usually seen in. It automatically adds new information that the viewer pays attention to all the time. It contains the schemas of the individual. All information is stored here ready for retrieval.

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Supporting research

Bruce and Young (1993) tested brain damaged soldiers and found evidence that face processing was modular, problems were specific where one part of the system may be damaged the rest was intact, e.g. recognising expressions. Bruyer (1983) case study, could not recognise famous faces, or friends or family. Yet he could recognise them from their voices. Thompson (1980) the Thatcher illusion shows facial features are processed separately.

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Negative evaluation

The model is vague in the cognitive processing component, how it is accessed and in what way is not explained. It does not explain familiarity without awareness called covert recognition.  W.J. was able to identify faces with no sense of recognition (McNeil and Warrington, 1993). deHaan (1991) case study could name faces but had no information about them. Again this should not be possible according to the model.

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Positive evaluation


In addition to the supporting research, PET scans have shown different areas of the brain are accessed during the face recognition process showing it is likely to be modular (Sargent & Signoret). Young (1985) diary study found no cases of recognition without prior knowledge of the person (22 participants). Problem with case studies and problem with studying people with brain damage

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