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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Color Plays Robust Role in Reading Faces

Two faces, one tinted red and the other tinted green.

Two versions of the same photo of a woman—at left, her skin tone is red; at right, it’s green. These 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.

Photo: NEI

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 NEI 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 July 8 in Nature Communications.

“The findings underscore the complexity of color perception,” said study lead investigator Dr. Bevil Conway, head of NEI’s unit on sensation, cognition and action. “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.”

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.

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