Reverse engineering the face space: Discovering the critical features for face identification

Naphtali Abudarham, Galit Yovel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do we identify people? What are the critical facial features that define an identity and determine whether two faces belong to the same person or different people? To answer these questions, we applied the face space framework, according to which faces are represented as points in a multidimensional feature space, such that face space distances are correlated with perceptual similarities between faces. In particular, we developed a novel method that allowed us to reveal the critical dimensions (i.e., critical features) of the face space. To that end, we constructed a concrete face space, which included 20 facial features of natural face images, and asked human observers to evaluate feature values (e.g., how thick are the lips). Next, we systematically and quantitatively changed facial features, and measured the perceptual effects of these manipulations. We found that critical features were those for which participants have high perceptual sensitivity (PS) for detecting differences across identities (e.g., which of two faces has thicker lips). Furthermore, these high PS features vary minimally across different views of the same identity, suggesting high PS features support face recognition across different images of the same face. The methods described here set an infrastructure for discovering the critical features of other face categories not studied here (e.g., Asians, familiar) as well as other aspects of face processing, such as attractiveness or trait inferences.

Original languageEnglish
Article number40
JournalJournal of Vision
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2016


  • Face features
  • Face identification
  • Face processing
  • Face space theory

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


Dive into the research topics of 'Reverse engineering the face space: Discovering the critical features for face identification'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this