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Faces and Bodies: Perception

The understanding of the visual processing mechanisms in human brain provides clues to human behavior. For the brain networks, "human faces and bodies are complex and interesting perceptual objects" [1]. How similar are the mechanisms used to recognize faces and bodies, and why is it important?

A psychological study done at the University of Texas in 2013 revealed that "people do better at facial recognition when the whole person, not just the face, is presented". It appears that "when faces are partially obscured or difficult to differentiate, subtle body cues allow people to identify others with surprising accuracy" [2].

Earliest recorded signs of clothing date to 36,000 BCE. So, in the time-scale of evolution, clothing is a relatively new invention. Taking this into account, two scientists have assumed that it is possible "that the responses of the brain networks specialized in body perception could show attenuated responses towards bodies wearing clothing" [3]. It indeed turned out that "the human brain showed enhanced visual processing of nude over clothed bodies". Human visual system has been found to be particularly sensitive to detecting nude bodies. The response traditionally assumed to be most pronounced to human faces proved to be even greater to nude bodies than to faces [3].

There's a long-standing question: What happened during the course of evolution to make humans so dramatically different in intelligence and abilities from even our closest relatives, primates [4]? One of the most distinctive evolutionary changes as humans "parted company from their fellow apes" was their loss of body hair [5]. In this sense, from the perspective of the furless humans, the invention of clothing is equivalent to an evolutionary step backwards.

Naked skin played a crucial role in the evolution of characteristic human traits [6]. Among primates, humans are unique in having nearly naked skin and the largest brain. The brain itself prioritizes the visual processing of nude bodies, while at the same time letting us "make sense of the world" [7]. Maybe that's why clothing often seems senseless.

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[1] Virginia Slaughter, Valerie E. Stone and Catherine Reed, Perception of Faces and Bodies. Similar or Different?, Current Directions in Psychological Science 2004 vol. 13 no. 6 219-223
[2] Study: People use body cues to help identify faces
[3] J.K. Hietanen, L. Nummenmaa, The naked truth: the face and body sensitive N170 response is enhanced for nude bodies, PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e24408
[4] Study: How Human Evolution Caused us to Lose Our Spiny Penises
[5] Why Humans and Their Fur Parted Ways
[6] The Naked Truth: Why Humans Have No Fur
[7] Brain - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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