Posted on July 5, 2011

Why Faces of Other Races Look Alike

Remy Melina, LiveScience, July 1, 2011

The brain works differently when memorizing the face of a person from one’s own race than when attempting to remember the face of someone of another race, new biological evidence suggests.

The well-documented “other-race effect” finds that people are less likely to remember a face from a racial group different from their own. Northwestern University researchers set out to determine what causes this rift in perception and memory by using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings, which measure brain activity, while participants viewed photos of various faces.

The researchers found that brain activity increases in the very first 200 to 250 milliseconds when seeing both same-race and other-race faces. Previous research has associated this very early phase, known as the N200 brain potential, with the perceptual process of individuation. That process involves making out the unique facial features of each person, such as the shape of their eyes and nose. {snip}

However, the amplitude of that increased brain activity only predicts whether an other-race face, not a same-race face, is later remembered, the Northwestern University study showed.


The N200 waves were large for all same-race faces, regardless of whether or not they later were successfully remembered. In contrast, N200 waves were larger–suggesting greater brain activity in certain regions–for other-race faces that were remembered than for other-race faces that were forgotten. This finding suggests the individuation process of noticing distinguishing features of a face didn’t kick in for some other-race faces.