Effects of facial symmetry and gaze direction on perception of social attributes: A study in experimental art history
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionFrontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2016, 10 (452) 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00452
This article explores the possibility of testing hypotheses about art production in the past by collecting data in the present. We call this enterprise “experimental art history”. Why did medieval artists prefer to paint Christ with his face directed towards the beholder, while profane faces were noticeably more often painted in different degrees of profile? Is a preference for frontal faces motivated by deeper evolutionary and biological considerations? Head and gaze direction is a significant factor for detecting the intentions of others, and accurate detection of gaze direction depends on strong contrast between a dark iris and a bright sclera, a combination that is only found in humans among the primates. One uniquely human capacity is language acquisition, where the detection of shared or joint attention, for example through detection of gaze direction, contributes significantly to the ease of acquisition. The perceived face and gaze direction is also related to fundamental emotional reactions such as fear, aggression, empathy and sympathy. The fast-track modulator model presents a related fast and unconscious subcortical route that involves many central brain areas. Activity in this pathway mediates the affective valence of the stimulus. In particular, different sub-regions of the amygdala show specific activation as response to gaze direction, head orientation and the valence of facial expression. We present three experiments on the effects of face orientation and gaze direction on the judgments of social attributes. We observed that frontal faces with direct gaze were more highly associated with positive adjectives. Does this help to associate positive values to the Holy Face in a Western context? The formal result indicates that the Holy Face is perceived more positively than profiles with both direct and averted gaze. Two control studies, using a Brazilian and a Dutch database of photographs, showed a similar but weaker effect with a larger contrast between the gaze directions for profiles. Our findings indicate that many factors affect the impression of a face, and that eye contact in combination with face direction reinforce the general impression of portraits, rather than determine it.