Remember that commercial where there were smiley faces in everything? This one:
We’re projecting onto those cars, using our very human tendency to look for faces and seeing them where they’re simply not there. But it turns out that if you do a lot of looking at cars—say, because you’re an auto expert—cars really do look like people. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences had auto experts look at the fronts of cars, and the same area of the brain involved in facial recognition was activated.
That area is called the fusiform face area, and for a long time people thought that its only job was to recognize faces. But this study found “no evidence that there is a special area devoted exclusively to facial recognition. Instead, they found that the FFA of the auto experts was filled with small, interspersed patches that respond strongly to photos of faces and autos both.”
Earlier work has suggested that faces trigger the FFA, while non-face objects don’t; other studies suggested that “non face objects” do trigger a response in the FFA. This newest work says that object or not, the brain doesn’t have a specific place for faces.
This study suggests, though, that the FFA’s job depends on how good you are at looking at objects. When you or I look at the front of a car, we might see the face in it, but the region we use to identify faces might not be activated. But the brain of an auto expert, someone who spends all their time looking at cars, might relate to that car as it would a face—their FFA does turn on. According to the press release:
For most objects, research has shown that people use a piecemeal identification scheme that focuses on parts of the object. By contrast, experts, for faces or for cars, use a more holistic approach that is extremely fast and improves their performance in recognition tasks.
This kind of expertise might not be that uncommon. Isabel Gauthier, the psychology professor who led the study, said in the press release that this same mechanism ”helps the doctor reading X-rays, the judge looking at show dogs, the person learning to identify birds or to play chess; it even helped us when we learned brain anatomy!”
It might seem silly to spend so much time thinking about how we see car faces, but this kind of facial recognition is an important and different way of storing information. Humans are programmed to remember faces better than a lot of other things. You probably remember your waitress’ face far longer than you remember the restaurant’s sign or the color of the table and chairs.
And when it comes to cars, the face does matter, even for laypeople. Research suggests that buyers tend to prefer cars with more aggressive, angry faces. Live Science details one study that showed car faces to people and asked their preferences. It turned out the people took mostly strong to cars that had “slit-like or angled headlights with a wider air intake”—faces with “power” traits.
More from Smithsonian.com: