Higher-level mechanisms detect facial symmetry

Gillian Rhodes, Marianne Peters, Kieran Lee, M. Concerta Morrone, David Burr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The role of symmetry detection in early visual processing and the sensitivity of biological visual systems to symmetry across a wide range of organisms suggest that symmetry can be detected by low-level visual mechanisms. However, computational and functional considerations suggest that higher-level mechanisms may also play a role in facial symmetry detection. We tested this hypothesis by examining whether symmetry detection is better for faces than comparable patterns, which share low-level properties with faces. Symmetry detection was better for upright faces than for inverted faces (experiment 1) and contrast-reversed faces (experiment 2), implicating high-level mechanisms in facial symmetry detection. In addition, facial symmetry detection was sensitive to spatial scale, unlike low-level symmetry detection mechanisms (experiment 3), and showed greater sensitivity to a 45° deviation from vertical than is found for other aspects of face perception (experiment 4). These results implicate specialized, higher-level mechanisms in the detection of facial symmetry. This specialization may reflect perceptual learning resulting from extensive experience detecting symmetry in faces or evolutionary selection pressures associated with the important role of facial symmetry in mate choice and 'mind-reading' or both.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1379-1384
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1570
Publication statusPublished - Jul 7 2005


  • Face perception
  • Symmetry detection
  • Visual perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


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