faces in a crowd faces in a crowd Which faces do you notice first? (Photo: blvdone / Shutterstock)

Here’s what face you search for when you look into a crowd

Scientists set out to figure out what we notice, and it reveals something about what's important to us.

When you look at a crowd, what do you see? You might imagine you see the whole crowd ... but you'd be wrong. Your brain, like all human brains, will likely focus in on some key details and block out the rest.

That's why some scientists at Israel's Hebrew University decided to examine what faces in crowds people noticed first.

“Walking around the world our unconscious minds are faced with a tremendous task: decide which stimuli ‘deserve’ conscious noticing and which do not,” explained Ran Hassin, a professor who worked on the study.

The scientists had 174 participants look at a bunch of quickly changing images; each eye received different images. An image of human faces would flash before one eye and geometric shapes in front of the other. The participants had to press a key on the computer every time they saw a human face.

Your mind decides which faces to notice. Your mind decides which faces to notice. (Photo: Wayhome Studio / Shutterstock)

Why all this weird image flashing? It tricked the brain long enough to take a few seconds to process the faces, giving scientists a chance to see which faces registered the fastest.

“This study gives insight into the unconscious processes that shape our consciousness,” said Hassin. “These processes are dynamic and often based on personal motivation. Hypothetically, if you’re looking for a romantic partner, your brain will ‘see’ people differently than if you’re already in a relationship. Unconsciously, your brain will ‘prioritize’ faces of potential partners and deemphasize other faces. Likewise, the same might be true for other motivations, such as avoiding danger.”

As it turns out, the participants in his study noticed "dominant" and "powerful" faces first.

“The mental algorithm we discovered deeply prioritizes dominance and potential threat,” continued Hassin, an alumnus of Tel Aviv University. “We literally saw the speed with which these images broke through the unconscious mind and registered on a conscious-level with each key press.”

Knowing this could help us change how we think.

“It might be possible to train and untrain people from perceiving certain facial dimensions as threatening," Hassin said. "This could be helpful for those suffering from PTSD or depression. Likewise, we could train people with autism to be more sensitive to social cues.”

So apparently we pick out whatever we think is most important. And that means that if we can change what we find important, we can change what we see.

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