Making Your Face More Memorable: MIT Scientists Develop Technique To Make Facial Features Stick In The Mind

By Ajit Jha on January 10, 2014 11:59 AM EST

A model's face
MIT researchers have discovered simple filters that can make an image of a face much more memorable, without distorting any identifying features. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Surprisingly, attractiveness doesn't automatically translate to memorability when it comes to faces. But there are some things that do make a face unforgettable. MIT researchers have found strategies to tweak facial images to make them more memorable, while keeping the identity and other facial traits including age, attractiveness, and emotional magnitude fixed.

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It is difficult to avoid evaluating the faces seen in daily life, according to the authors of the study. "However, in this flash judgment of a face, an underlying decision is happening in the brain - should I remember this face or not?" according to study authors. 

Memory is a complex topic that draws on both psychology and neurobiology. One thing we do know is that it is easier to remember something new that we have been exposed to in the past. Subjective factors like past familiarity of a face help us remember a new face that resembles the one already in our memory. The new study, however, claims that memorability is also characterized by a strong universal component. In other words, some faces are easy to remember for everyone irrespective of past association.

The researchers zeroed in on a set of four universal characteristics that impart memorability to a facial image: uniqueness, kindness, trustworthiness, and familiarity. "The basic idea is that if there is someone you have never seen...and...this person looks familiar - then, if this person looks kind, trustworthy and distinct, then it will be easier to remember them," Aude Oliva, a principal research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, told NPR. Manipulating faces, according to Oliva, is a tricky process that must keep the original features in a facial photograph while making subtle changes.

The authors claim that their study has several innovative applications not just in computer vision in graphics but in wider domains like marketing, social networking, and entertainment. For example, imagine if you were trying to market yourself as, say, a freelance writer or consultant. If your profile picture was optimized for memory, it would leave a greater impact on profile visitors. Well, the research study claims that by 2016, new smartphone applications will come with features that will instantly facelift a job applicant's face so that the prospective employer will remember the facial image.  

Filmmakers could make sure that the central characters in the movies look more prominent while extras are relegated into the background with the use of the technique recommended in the study. Animated movies can have characters with different degrees of memorability as required by the plot of film.

The study authors also point out that the manipulation is so subtle that it is difficult to mark out the difference from the original image and therefore, there is nothing unethical about the technique.  

Image above courtesy of Shutterstock.

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