What’s in a face? Birkbeck researchers delve into what facial expressions reveal

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Birkbeck scientists in residence at the Science Museum have recently run a live experiment with members of the public, to discover how much we understand about people simply by looking at their faces. Two members of the team report on their experiences.  

Ines Mares, postdoctoral research assistant in the Department of Psychological Sciences: As humans, we possess the remarkable ability to extract a wealth of information from even a brief glance at a face: we can identify people, judge the emotion they are feeling, assign character traits (rightly or wrongly), and in doing so, continue to thrive as a social species. Because faces are so interesting and processing them well is so important to us as humans, they made an ideal topic to explore in the context of the Science Museum’s ‘Live Science’ initiative.

In the Science Museum we ran a series of experiments to understand what factors make faces more rewarding or appealing – such as how attractive they were, the emotions they were displaying or how old the faces were. We were especially interested to see how these judgements related to our ability to recognise faces, and to see how our results would change for younger and older participants (our experiments tested children from five years of age to adults of almost 90!).

Dr Ines Mares explains the experiment to a participant.

Dr Ines Mares explains the experiment to a participant. 

“This was a great opportunity for us to engage directly with people and discuss the type of research we do and the questions that motivate us. It is also a unique chance to reach out and test a much more diverse set of people than we are conventionally able to do, with anyone aged from five to 105 invited to take part in our studies.”

Dr Marie Smith, Senior Lecturer, Lead Scientist with Dr Louise Ewing (UEA) and Professor Anne Richards (Birkbeck)

Conducting this type of study, in which we focused so closely on individual differences with such a broad audience was outstanding.  It was a unique opportunity to interact with people from very different backgrounds and ages – something that can be challenging to do in the university labs.

To begin with, we were concerned about people’s willingness to take part in our experiments, but after the first day at the museum we understood that people were interested in being involved and actually wanted to know more about our hypothesis and what motivated us to do this type of work. It was an amazing chance to discuss these topics with members of the public and get feedback on our work directly from them. Initially this idea seemed quite daunting to me, but I ended up loving it, since the majority of people who took part in our experiments (and we had almost 2500 participants) were really motivated and interested to know more – not only about face processing, but also about other aspects of science in general.

Being part of a team running experiments in the Science Museum was an amazing opportunity.  Without a doubt, I would repeat this experience, not only because of the amazing breadth of data we were able to collect, but also because of the opportunity it gave us as researchers to disseminate our work and discuss science in general.

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Professor Anne Richards explains the purpose of our study to an interested volunteer. 

Michael Papasavva, PhD student in the Department of Psychological SciencesEven when working in a hub-science such as psychology, lab life can become monotonous. Surrounded by friends and colleagues who share similar views and challenges, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the bubble of academia.

Michael Papasavva signs up another keen volunteer!

Michael Papasavva signs up another keen volunteer! 

I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to get out of the lab and be a scientist in residence at the London Science Museum. This prospect invoked childhood memories of navigating this huge and stimulating environment on school trips and family days out; I knew that the experience was going to be awesome (in the nerdiest way possible).

Working as part of a team of 12 researchers, we ran experiments in the ‘Who Am I? Gallery.’ This is perhaps one of the more interesting areas of the museum; the space houses visiting scientists from various disciplines and facilitates their research. Members of the public are free to wander over and volunteer to participate in experiments (or query the location of the toilets or dinosaurs). Our team conducted a range of different face processing experiments that examined the role of development and individual difference on face memory and emotion processing. By the end of the residency, almost 2500 people had participated (832 children, 1487 adults), creating masses of data for us to explore once we were back in the lab.

In addition to generating novel information, it’s the responsibility of a scientist to disseminate that knowledge to the wider public. Our residency provided us with an opportunity to engage with a very wide demographic. I must admit, it was heart-warming to see our younger participants having so much fun with the masks and games we had set up to help draw in the crowds and that so many of our  older participants chose to stay back to discuss our project with us. People genuinely enjoyed giving back to science.

I would strongly recommend the Live Science project.

Photo credits: Science Museum Group Collection

The full science museum team: Dr Marie Smith (Senior Lecturer, Birkbeck), Professor Anne Richards (Birkbeck), Dr Louise Ewing (Lecturer, University of East Anglia), Dr Ines Mares (Post-doc, Birkbeck), Michael Papasavva (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Alex Hartigan (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Gurmukh Panesar (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Laura Lennuyeux-Comnene (RA, Birkbeck), Michaela Rae (RA, Goldsmiths College), Kathryn Bates (MSc student, Birkbeck), Susan Scrimgeour (MSc student, Birkbeck), Jay White (Intern, UCL Institute of Education).

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