Mooney faces

Mooney Faces are low-information two-tone pictures of faces, used in face perception tasks where participants are asked to identify features and distinguish between real and “false” faces:


Humans are highly skilled in face recognition, and this ability has been attributed to the configural processing of faces. Configural processing is based on relations between component parts of faces, and it has been suggested that configural face perception includes several levels of processing:

  1. First, generic first-order relational information (two eyes above nose, nose above mouth) is retrieved…
  2. …which is then combined into a holistic gestalt-like representation…
  3. and finally, second-order relational information (i.e., spatial distances between facial features) is processed, which distinguishes individual faces from each other and forms the basis of what we call “face recognition”.

Evidence for face-specificity in visual processing comes from event-related potential (ERP) and magnetoencephalographic (MEG) studies, where face-selective electromagnetic responses in occipitotemporal (face reading) areas are triggered 150–190ms after stimulus (a face) onset. If the face is upside down (inverted), the time it takes for people to recognize it as a face is delayed, compared to when the face is upright. You never see that with any other objects, which therefore strongly suggests that the underlying neural processes are not just involved in the part-based processing of face components, but also in the analysis of configural face properties. You see the same effect with schematic face stimuli, such as “smiley” faces 🙂 , which retain the overall spatial configuration of faces, but has no parts that could be individually recognized as face components. Schematic faces allow the retrieval of first-order relational information, and may also be processed at the subsequent holistic level, and thats why pareidolia faces are perceived as faces as well – because they engage configural face processing.

Mooney faces, like the image at top, usually contain no individually recognizable facial features and, and unlike real faces and schematic faces, no prototypical first-order configural arrangement of their component parts. To be recognized as faces, their global structure that is provided by shape-from-shading information needs to be processed. It has therefore been argued that the first face-specific processing stage activated by Mooney faces is holistic. Now look at the video underneath, and tell me if you agree. Can you tell if its a face he is painting before he is finished?!

Here’s an more thorough article I wrote on the subject:

Why do we have a tendency to see faces in objects that have component resembling those of a face. Is the human brain hard-wired to instantly detect the presence of a face, or is it a later cognitive construction

This entry was posted in Diplopi, Face perception, Neuroscience, Pareidolia, Perception and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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