Dr Andrew Edmonds, Lecturer in Psychology at Staffordshire University, talks about the psychology behind the “Adele Illusion” a recent meme being shared via social media:
You may by now have seen Adele as you’ve never seen her before – with her eyes and mouth upside down! Even the biggest admirers of her work would probably agree that this makes her face look a bit distorted. However, turning the whole image upside down makes this disappear. This is a modern version of the Thatcher illusion, first discovered in 1980 by Peter Thompson.
So what is going on here? It is thought (e.g. Edmonds & Lewis, 2007; Thompson, 1980) that inverting the eyes and mouth of a face disrupts information about the spatial relationship between the features of a face (broadly termed ‘configural information’). Research has shown that this configural information is unavailable to us when a whole face is turned upside down.
So, if configural information is unavailable to us, and it is the disturbance of this information which produces the weird appearance in the upright Adele face (with the eyes and mouth inverted), then this may explain why the upturned features disappear when we turn the face upside down! However, more recent research suggests that the illusion may actually be due to a reduced sensitivity to inverted facial features (e.g. Psalta, Young, Thompson and Andrews, 2014).
The same picture of Adele just turned the right way up!
Whatever the explanation, illusions such as this are more than just a bit of fun – they have helped psychologists to identify the sorts of processes that are involved in ‘normal’ upright face processing. It is thought, for example, that we use configural information for the processing of familiar faces but not when processing those which are unfamiliar to us. This is just one of the many differences between familiar and unfamiliar faces which I am interested in understanding in my own research, as well as the question of how faces become familiar to us over time.
Listen to Dr Andrew Edmonds being interviewed by BBC Radio Stoke about the Adele Illusion via: Dr Andrew Edmonds featured on BBC Radio Stoke discussing the “Adele Illusion”
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