Inspired by XKCD comics’ Thing Explainer, we are now posting descriptions of our new publications as they come out using the 1000 most commonly used English words (

We find it not only clears out the jargon to help non-experts understand our research, it helps us understand our research better too.

Here, to launch this project, is a description of a brand new paper by Lia Kendall:

Kendall, L. N., Rafaelli, Q., Kingstone A., & Todd, R. M. Schematic faces are not real faces: Differences in emotion detection and processing. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

Do we look at photos and simple drawn images in different ways? Many kinds of images are used in our every day lives: Photos are almost exactly true to life, but there are also many images that are much simpler, found everywhere from bathroom doors to road signs, and of course drawings in children’s books. So you can see that pictures could be sorted by how real they look, going from simple drawings to not-simple photos. But few people have studied how these different kinds of pictures might not be the same when people look at them, or whether the brain sees these different kinds of images differently. An easy way of studying this is to use face images – they have only a few parts, which are always the same (that is, eyes, nose, and mouth), and both drawings and photos of them are found everywhere. We showed people both more real-looking faces and less real-looking faces, all showing different feelings. There were five kinds of faces going from less simple photos to more simple drawings.

In our first study, people would be shown a face very quickly – much less than half of a second – and would be asked to answer if the face was happy, sad, surprised, or not really showing any expression. The images were drawn from our five kinds in no set order, and people were made to do this hundreds of times. We found that, when people were shown faces more and more quickly, the least real looking faces were still very easy to see the expression on – even at a small part of a second. Photos, on the other hand, were much harder to give answers for – and for the fastest shown faces, it was almost not possible. Our middle three kinds of faces were spread between these two. We studied this a second time, but showing the faces for only half a second, and with a brain hat on people that helped us look at how the brain was seeing each image. We found that the brain saw faces which were less real faster, and stronger, than images which were more real. It also seemed as if this was not really anything that was special to faces, but was instead about how we see more or less simple images of any kind.

These two studies together show that not all faces are the same – how real something looks really does make you see it in a different way. Further, this is probably not only true of faces; the more simple and drawing-like any image looks, the easier it may be to understand. This might be why you see more simple pictures in places where we most need to understand something quickly – like on street signs – or in places we might need a stronger expression of what something means, like in children’s books. Either way, this opens up a whole new can of studies for us in the future, to find out how different images might be even more different than we had thought.