Rosy health and sickly green: color associations play robust role in reading faces

IRP study research uncovers specialized networks in the brain for processing face color

Anyone who has ever sensed that a person is sick simply by looking at their face has experienced the wealth of information conveyed by face color. A new study by the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, provides evidence that the human brain’s visual system is especially sensitive to the color of faces compared to the colors of other objects or things. Study results were published today in Nature Communications.

“The findings underscore the complexity of color perception. Far from operating as a reflex, color perception involves a set of sophisticated brain operations that ultimately assign value and meaning to what we see,” said the study’s lead investigator, Bevil Conway, Ph.D., head of the NEI Unit on Sensation, Cognition, and Action.

The findings also suggest that social communication cues from faces factored into evolutionary selective pressures that gave rise to trichromatic color vision in our ancestors 23 million years ago.

red- and green-tinted human faces

These face images illustrate how color plays a key role in how faces are read. Both images are manipulated away from normal, by about the same units in color (green in one direction, red in the other). Both color directions may be deemed meaningful in terms of indicating blushing or sickness.

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This page was last updated on Friday, January 21, 2022