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Facial expression recognition in peripheral versus central vision: role of the eyes and the mouth

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Abstract

This study investigated facial expression recognition in peripheral relative to central vision, and the factors accounting for the recognition advantage of some expressions in the visual periphery. Whole faces or only the eyes or the mouth regions were presented for 150 ms, either at fixation or extrafoveally (2.5° or 6°), followed by a backward mask and a probe word. Results indicated that (a) all the basic expressions were recognized above chance level, although performance in peripheral vision was less impaired for happy than for non-happy expressions, (b) the happy face advantage remained when only the mouth region was presented, and (c) the smiling mouth was the most visually salient and most distinctive facial feature of all expressions. This suggests that the saliency and the diagnostic value of the smile account for the advantage in happy face recognition in peripheral vision. Because of saliency, the smiling mouth accrues sensory gain and becomes resistant to visual degradation due to stimulus eccentricity, thus remaining accessible extrafoveally. Because of diagnostic value, the smile provides a distinctive single cue of facial happiness, thus bypassing integration of face parts and reducing susceptibility to breakdown of configural processing in peripheral vision.

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Notes

  1. In the Calvo et al. (2010) study using a 150-ms display, saccades were initiated from the central fixation point towards the target face on 5.8 % of trials. This implies that most saccade latencies were longer than 150 ms. Crucially, the probability that a saccade actually landed on the face was negligible (0.2 % of trials), and there were no differences as a function of expression. This allows us to rule out the hypothesis that the effects found in the current study could be due to foveal fixations on the faces.

  2. We used relatively simple visual stimuli such as faces from which, in addition, some aspects—not relevant to expression— such as hair, etc., had been removed. With more complex stimuli and naturalistic scenes, the predictive power of saliency as a purely sensory-driven factor in guiding attention may be limited (Tatler, Hayhoe, Land, & Ballard, 2011), and task demands can override the effects of saliency (Einhäuser, Rutishauser, & Koch 2008). Consequently, saliency models probably work best on simple stimuli with clear saliency peaks and when top-down goals are minimal.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by Grant PSI2009-07245 from the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación, and the Agencia Canaria de Investigación, Innovación y Sociedad de la Información (Neurocog Project), and the European Regional Development Funds.

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Correspondence to Manuel G. Calvo.

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Calvo, M.G., Fernández-Martín, A. & Nummenmaa, L. Facial expression recognition in peripheral versus central vision: role of the eyes and the mouth. Psychological Research 78, 180–195 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-013-0492-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-013-0492-x

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