Or at least that's what your intuition tells you. The blue areas in the image above track how the eye moves over a stranger's face when the viewer is trying to recognize them. The nose, front and center, and usually distinctive, gets the first look.
When talking about a person's face, most writers rhapsodize about the eyes. And it's true that, when talking, most people look at each other's eyes. But when they're trying to figure out who the hell they are talking to, it's not the eyes that let them make the connection. It's the nose that helps people know who they're talking to.
Or at least, a spot in the center of the nose, along with just to the left of the center of the nose, that lets people know. UC San Diego researchers were trying to study exactly how many fixation points were necessary before a person recognized the face of the person they were looking at. Although facial recognition is important, and is both an inborn and often-practiced skill, it still isn't completely understood. Exactly how much of a face needed to be scanned before people caught on? They showed experimental subjects a number of photographs of faces, and then had them try to recognize those faces, amid a crowd of new and unfamiliar ones, on a computer. The subjects were given a limited amount of time to remember each face. By varying that amount of time and tracking eye movement, researchers tried to pin down exactly how many steady looks (fixations) it took to recognize people. They found that two fixations were adequate, and that anything more didn't significantly improve facial recognition.
They also found that, instead of staring at someone's eyes to recognize them, the people stared at the center of the person's nose. If given time for a second fixation, most people would glance just to the left of the center of the person's nose. It was only when they got more time that their gaze spread to the eyes and the mouth. The researchers can't say exactly why people looked at the nose. They think that the nose is both distinctive and it's a good spot to focus on in order to take in the rest of the features. It is, however, not poetic. Ah well, such is the course of science.
Story and Image: UCSD.