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Literature review on the cognitive processes involved with face recognition Essay

To human beings, facial recognition is not only essential for identification of persons in the social context, but also a vital social tool. There are various reasons why facial recognition process is a vital to human beings. Facial recognition serves an essential purpose of identifying members within our society; as a result, we are able to select those that we can socialize with that aid our survival in society.

For instance, the males are able to select or identify the female and establish relationship that results to continuity of generation (Matsuo, Nakai, 1998, p. 110). While strong relationship and bonding exhibited in mother to child are facilitated by the facial recognition aspect.

 The other vital function played by the facial recognition function is its ability to give information about individual’s emotional status through expression aspect like a smile or gloominess which serves as a mode of communication. Therefore, due to this significance importance of the facial recognition, psychologists have shown interest in studying the cognitive processes involved in facial recognition. In this line of thought, this paper shall examine and discus the cognitive processes and systems involved in facial recognition by individuals.

Encoding of face by individual

It is a common knowledge that in order for a person to recognize the face, the face features or cues must be encoded first in the long term memory. Thus, understanding face encoding precedes the recognition action. The first and initial stages of facial coding are referred to as structural encoding. In this stage, the visual information is encoded from the face into the information that shall provide information or be a data bank to face recognition systems in the stage of facial recognition.

Encoding takes place in two separate processes, with the first one being “view centered description” that encodes the facial features like beards, color, eyes, nose, mouth and eyebrows which can be identified when viewed at an angle. From initial onsite of a person view centered description is involved in perceptual input that records the aspects of the face including its features. From the information input from the view cantered description, information is further processed to create a structural model of the face that facilitates comparison with other faces in memory.

The second part of the processes is the expression independent descriptions that take its inputs from the view centered expressions. This second phase uses the already processed structural model of the face which is transferred to notional FRUs (face recognition units) (Matsuo, Nakai, 1998, p. 113) that will be now coded in semantic memory and would allow the facial recognition based on this stored information.

In other words, facial recognition starts from basic perceptual manipulations on the sensory information to derive details about the person that generate cognitive ability to recall meaningful details of a person by seeing his or her face. Properly encoded face features enables the retrieval of features that relate to relevant past experiences of the individual and name that assists in recognizing the person.

After structural encoding of the face features into FRUs, there are other parallel processes which occur like expression analysis processing stage receiving inputs from the view-centered process whereby an individual would analyze facial expression and imagine. But for the persons with brain damage cannot interpret expressions but can recognize faces.

This is because these individuals with damaged brain, they can see facial features movements but they can not read the meaning of this facial features movement. Other parallel processes stage after encoding of the facial features into the FRUs is the facial speech analysis. This facial speech analysis stage of processing helps to separate distinct information from general information that gives more meaning to the encoded information (Shepherd, 2008, p. 320).

Face recognition and identification

After the information has been encoded into the semantic memory and can be used, the person visual perception shall be active and ready to retrieve features to identify the face.  According to Pretty and Benson, (2001); they states that face recognition involves stages that involve FRUs (Face Recognition Units). FRUs are nodes within individual’s long term memory that are associated with familiar face.

When an individual eyes as a sensory organ sees an individual face which is referred to as a stimuli, it results to activation that is fed into FRUs. Within the FRUs there is inhibition and interactive activation, the node that reaches level of threshold activation will correspond to the face being observed, shall result to that face being recognized.

While nodes that do not reach threshold activation level shall not correspond to the face being observed, therefore it will not be recognized. After recognizing the face, the FRUs and PINs (Persons Identifying Nodes) links and PINs receive input from the FRUs. This linkage enables the PINs to process and provide necessary information about the person. However, it is important to note that FRUs and PINs interact at levels of subject’s reaction time and name generation process for complete facial recognition. This is a simple process that leads to an individual recognizing and identifying the face of a friend or stranger.

Possible errors associated with face recognition

Most researches indicate that there are various errors that may occur in the process of facial recognition (Parkin, 2000; Retterstol, 2004). The errors are attributed to the brain disorders or neurological illness associated with such patients that are likely to make such errors. The dominant error is Prosopagnosia as a face perception disorder. Prosopagnosia is an impairment in recognizing faces that is usually caused by brain injury or neurological illness. In this case of Prosopagnosia, an individual’s ability to understand face is impaired, as a result, he or she can not recognize a face despite other perceptual skills like discriminating objects and recognizing remaining intact.

The other error associated in facial recognition is misidentification. Misidentification error which is as a result of a syndrome which psychologist scholars refer to it as Delusional misidentification syndrome being a branch of the disorders which are caused by either neurological or mental illness to a patient. Misidentification error occurs as a result of a patient believing that the identity of an object or place or a person has somehow changed or has been altered. For instance, some patients with Delusional misidentification syndrome believe that close relative has been replaced is an example of the misidentification (Blakemore, 1970, p. 216)


Parkin, A.J. (2000) Essential Cognitive Psychology: Psychology Press,

 Retterstol, N. (2004). “Delusional misidentification syndromes”: Psychopathology 27117–120.

Matsuo, K. & Nakai, T (1998) “Cognitive Studies”: Journal of Cognitive Psychology vol.5, p.100–118.

Blakemore, C. (1970). “The representation of three dimensional visual spaces”: Journal of Physiology, 209, 155–178.

Shepherd, J. (2008) “Face recognition accuracy as a function of mode of representation.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 63, 180–187

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