Facial recognition

Certainty Style Key

Certainty styling is being phased out topic by topic.

Hover over keys for definitions:
True   Likely   Speculative
Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Speculative Difference
MOCA Domain: 
MOCA Topic Authors: 

Facial recognition, or the ability to quickly attend to and recognize faces, is common in most primates. However, this ability is particularly important for humans and non-human primates within a highly social group. Facial recognition has been suggested to be required for development of theory of mind, and even for basic learning in human infants.

First-order configuration (general features in a face-like pattern): newborn humans, macaques, and gibbons show a strong preference for face-like patterns versus non-face-like patterns.

Species-specific face preferences: human infants show no preference for human versus monkey faces at six months of age, but by nine months there is a strong preference for human faces. It seems as though this preference is due to familiarity; if macaques are deprived of faces for six months, their preference is toward the faces of whichever species they had been shown more (humans of conspecifics).4 Chimpanzee infants show no preference for their mother’s face at one month (compared to unrelated chimps), but by two months they show a strong preference. Furthermore, chimpanzees exposed to more human faces than chimpanzee faces will show a stronger preference for, and better discrimination of human faces, whereas those that experienced equal numbers of humans and other chimpanzees had no species bias.

Holistic face processing: inversion studies have demonstrated that humans and chimpanzees seem to be more impaired at matching an inverted familiar face than by non-familiar faces or other objects. This effect is strongly debated in the literature on monkeys.

Identifying individual faces: Chimpanzees are quick to match individual images from conspecifics to a different image of the same individual, requiring only two presentations to perform significantly above chance. Rhesus macaques require an additional generalization phase and several more presentations to match images from the same conspecific. Altering the spacing between features (second-order configural cues) or rearranging facial features (first- and second-order configural cues) impairs face recognition for chimpanzees, but showing only inner facial features has no effect. All three of these alterations cause a deficit in face recognition for rhesus macaques. Humans at 10-years of age struggle with changes in the spacing of features as well.

Functional processing: Face recognition tasks activate the fusiform gyrus, orbitofrontal cortex and posterior superior temporal sulcus in both humans and chimpanzees. In macaques, the superior temporal sulcus and the inferior temporal convexity is activated, but there is no activity in a region analogous to the fusiform gyrus.

Mechanisms Responsible for the Difference: 

It is suggested that fission-fusion societies, such as that of humans and chimpanzees, requires efficient methods for face recognition to identify familiar and foreign individuals. The differences in processing of second-order configural cues in rhesus macaques may be due to the dynamics of their strictly hierarchical society.

Related MOCA Topics
Related Topics (hover over title for reason):
Referenced By:


  1. Getting to the Bottom of Face Processing. Species-Specific Inversion Effects for Faces and Behinds in Humans and Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes), Kret, Mariska E., and Tomonaga Masaki , PLOS ONE, 2016/11/30, Volume 11, Issue 11, p.e0165357 - , (2016)
  2. Morphological and population genomic evidence that human faces have evolved to signal individual identity., Sheehan, Michael J., and Nachman Michael W. , Nat Commun, 2014, Volume 5, p.4800, (2014)
  3. Face Processing in the Chimpanzee Brain, Parr, Lisa A., Hecht Erin, Barks Sarah K., Preuss Todd M., and Votaw John R. , 01/2009, Volume 19, Issue 1, p.50 - 53, (2009)
  4. Face perception in monkeys reared with no exposure to faces, Sugita, Yoichi , Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 105, p.394-398, (2008)
  5. Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) lack expertise in face processing., Parr, Lisa A., Heintz Matthew, and Pradhan Gauri , J Comp Psychol, 2008 Nov, Volume 122, Issue 4, p.390-402, (2008)
  6. Comparative cognitive development., Matsuzawa, Tetsuro , Dev Sci, 2007 Jan, Volume 10, Issue 1, p.97-103, (2007)
  7. Human and chimpanzee face recognition in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): role of exposure and impact on categorical perception., Martin-Malivel, Julie, and Okada Kazunori , Behav Neurosci, 2007 Dec, Volume 121, Issue 6, p.1145-55, (2007)
  8. Three studies on configural face processing by chimpanzees, Parr, Lisa A., Heintz Matthew, and Akamagwuna Unoma , Brain and cognition, 2006/10/, Volume 62, Issue 1, p.30 - 42, (2006)
  9. Representations of faces and body parts in macaque temporal cortex: a functional MRI study., Pinsk, Mark A., DeSimone Kevin, Moore Tirin, Gross Charles G., and Kastner Sabine , Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2005 May 10, Volume 102, Issue 19, p.6996-7001, (2005)
  10. Development of schematic face preference in macaque monkeys., Kuwahata, H, Adachi I, Fujita K, Tomonaga M, and Matsuzawa T , Behav Processes, 2004 Apr 30, Volume 66, Issue 1, p.17-21, (2004)
  11. Faces and objects in macaque cerebral cortex., Tsao, Doris Y., Freiwald Winrich A., Knutsen Tamara A., Mandeville Joseph B., and Tootell Roger B. H. , Nat Neurosci, 2003 Sep, Volume 6, Issue 9, p.989-95, (2003)
  12. Configural face processing develops more slowly than featural face processing., Mondloch, Catherine J., Le Grand Richard, and Maurer Daphne , Perception, 2002, Volume 31, Issue 5, p.553-66, (2002)
  13. Is face processing species-specific during the first year of life?, Pascalis, Olivier, de Haan Michelle, and Nelson Charles A. , Science, 2002 May 17, Volume 296, Issue 5571, p.1321-3, (2002)
  14. Development of face recognition in an infant gibbon (Hylobates agilis), Myowa-Yamakoshi, Masako, and Tomonaga Masaki , 02/2001, Volume 24, Issue 2, p.215 - 227, (2001)
  15. Recognizing Facial Cues: Individual Discrimination by Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta), Parr, Lisa A., Winslow James T., Hopkins William D., and de Waal Frans B. M. , Journal of comparative psychology (Washington, D.C. : 1983), 03/2000, Volume 114, Issue 1, p.47 - 60, (2000)
  16. Why faces may be special: evidence for the inversion effectin chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), Parr, L. A., Dove T., and Hopkins W. D. , Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Volume 10, p.615-622, (1998)
  17. Face-specific processing in the human fusiform gyrus., McCarthy, G, Puce A, Gore J C., and Allison T , J Cogn Neurosci, 1997 Fall, Volume 9, Issue 5, p.605-10, (1997)
  18. The fusiform face area: a module in human extrastriate cortex specialized for face perception., Kanwisher, N, McDermott J, and Chun M M. , J Neurosci, 1997 Jun 1, Volume 17, Issue 11, p.4302-11, (1997)
  19. Face preference at birth., Valenza, E, Simion F, Cassia V M., and Umiltà C , J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform, 1996 Aug, Volume 22, Issue 4, p.892-903, (1996)
  20. Superiority of Conspecific Faces and Reduced Inversion Effect in Face Perception by a Chimpanzee, Tomonaga, M., Itakura S., and Matsuzawa T. , Folia Primatol, 1993, Volume 61, Issue 2, p.110 - 114, (1993)
  21. Upside-down faces: a review of the effect of inversion upon face recognition., Valentine, T , Br J Psychol, 1988 Nov, Volume 79 ( Pt 4), p.471-91, (1988)
  22. Face recognition by monkeys: absence of an inversion effect., Bruce, C , Neuropsychologia, 1982, Volume 20, Issue 5, p.515-21, (1982)
  23. Hemispheric specialization displayed by man but not macaques for analysis of faces., Overman, W H., and Doty R W. , Neuropsychologia, 1982, Volume 20, Issue 2, p.113-28, (1982)
  24. Face recognition in the rhesus monkey., Rosenfeld, S A., and Van Hoesen G W. , Neuropsychologia, 1979, Volume 17, Issue 5, p.503-9, (1979)
  25. Visual following and pattern discrimination of face-like stimuli by newborn infants., Goren, C C., Sarty M, and Wu P Y. , Pediatrics, 1975 Oct, Volume 56, Issue 4, p.544-9, (1975)
  26. Looking at upside-down faces, Yin, R. K. , Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume 8, Issue 1, p.141-145, (1969)