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Richard Doty
IU Media Relations

James Townsend
Department of Psychology

Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2003

IUB psychology research investigates how we recognize faces

A psychology research project at Indiana University Bloomington that deals with face recognition -- which ultimately may help identify terrorists and other criminals -- has received $968,000 in funding from the National Institutes of Health.

James Townsend, the Rudy Professor of Psychology at IUB, is the project director for the three-year grant to apply theoretical, empirical and methodological tools to help understand how objects are perceived as configural wholes.

The project involves cognitive science, which is the interdisciplinary study of the mind and the nature of intelligence, and mathematical psychology, which uses mathematical methods, formal logic and computer simulation. IU Bloomington, through its Department of Psychology and cognitive science research, is one of the birthplaces of mathematical psychology and remains today one of the world leaders in this field, Townsend said.

Townsend, director of the Cognitive Modeling Training Program at IU, has been studying mathematical psychology for 30 years. He has received more than $10 million for research during this time, mostly from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and he has an international reputation in this field.

"One of the important concepts in our work is face recognition and how we think and perceive things," he said. "We want to know how even babies recognize their mother's face and how a word gets transformed in our brain from random letters to a holistic pattern or subject. How does the mind encode and differentiate emotional expressions such as a frown or a smile? We study this behaviorally and mathematically."

He explained that when our brain perceives a face, it has to take the individual components such as the eyes, nose and mouth and put this information together to create the image we see. "One way the brain might do this is by individually perceiving each of the major features one at a time, which is called serial processing, or by perceiving all of the major features at the same time, which is called parallel processing," he said.

Townsend and his colleagues believe that well-formed and well-known objects such as faces are perceived in parallel, whereas difficult unorganized patterns, such as a scrambled display of facial features, may be processed serially. With the aid of mathematical models, he and his research team have developed experimental methods of determining exactly how the brain actually sees well-formed objects as opposed to random displays of unorganized objects.

The IU psychologist said a future practical application of his research involves working with engineers to apply the theories and models that he develops to make better face recognition systems that can be used to help identify criminals and terrorists. But he warned that a major concern in this area is privacy and how far science can go without compromising our freedoms.

For more information, contact Townsend at 812-855-9598 or