Recent Study Finds That Masks May Impact Face Processing

Recent Study Finds That Masks May Impact Face Processing

A recent study, published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, concluded that face masks may interfere with the ability to recognize and process faces in children aged 6 to 14 years. In this study, the researchers found that children showed greater impairment in processing masked faces than adults. Specifically, the children were 20.1 percent less accurate with masked faces, while adults were 13.5 percent less accurate.

The researchers also found that children tended to use a different strategy to process masked faces. Specifically, the children were more likely to focus more on the features of the face rather than on the face as a whole unit (referred to as “holistic processing”).

To understand the impact of holistic processing of faces, refer to the picture below of George W. Bush upright and upside down. It is significantly more difficult for most adults to recognize the picture of George W. Bush upside down—even though both faces have the same features—because we tend to process faces as a whole unit rather than based on their individual features. In this study, children showed less of an impact in processing a masked face upright vs. upside down, suggesting that children are not using holistic processing to the same extent with masked faces.

This finding supports previous research which also found reduced holistic processing of masked faces in adults. It is also in line with previous research finding that the mouth seems to be particularly important for holistic processing.

This study suggests that children are more likely to use a different, less efficient strategy to process faces wearing masks. Research finds that holistic processing of faces (processing faces as a whole unit) is key to efficiently and accurately understanding a social situation.

Research also indicates that face recognition abilities are correlated with holistic processing—meaning that the better a person is at holistic processing, the better they are at processing faces. Children with autism spectrum disorders also show reduced holistic face processing which may be a cause or a result of their social impairments. Holistic processing also seems to be disrupted for individuals with prosopagnosia (a condition in which you cannot recognize the faces of others).

Research also finds that experience with faces in early childhood is critical in determining the extent to which children become “face processing experts.” A face processing expert can quickly and efficiently use holistic processing to recognize faces and interpret important social cues from them. However, a child’s expertise with faces is determined by the types of faces to which they are exposed. For example, children tend to show more expertise in processing same-race faces (likely due to greater experience with these faces) unless they are adopted by a family of another race, in which case they also show expertise in processing other-race faces.

Neuroscience research also finds that an area of our brain called the fusiform gyrus becomes specialized in holistic processing of the face over the course of typical development. Brain imaging research suggests that this brain region becomes specialized for holistic processing of faces due to extensive experience with faces.

What happens if most of a child’s experience with faces involves masked faces and holistic processing is disrupted for nearly all of a child’s interactions? The short answer is that we do not know and further longitudinal research is needed to understand the long-term impact. However, this research raises the question of whether children will gain expertise in processing unmasked faces if they have extensive experience with masked faces. It also raises the question of whether children will become experts at processing either masked or unmasked faces if they are not engaging in holistic processing to the same extent.

Experts estimate that there is a sensitive period in brain development for face processing (meaning the brain is primed to learn about faces) from infancy to around 10 to 12 years. After this period, the brain can still learn about faces but it may be more difficult.

There is also some evidence that difficulty seeing and recognizing a face may impact interest in social interaction. For example, individuals with macular degeneration, which makes faces appear blurred, may have reduced social confidence and a tendency to disengage from social interaction.

In summary, children are less likely to recognize faces wearing masks and more likely to use a different strategy when processing faces with masks. Further research is needed to understand how this impacts the development of face processing in children.







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