Stare Into the Eyes of 40 Ape Faces

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Photographer James Mollison reveals the variability of our uncanny human cousins in a stunning series of close-up portraits of the Great Apes.

The tight focus of his photographs forces us to look right into the eyes of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans of different ages and personalities. The portraits, which Mollison first released a few years ago, have resurfaced thanks to a post on the Accidental Mysteries photography blog.

Wondering how he got so close the apes? Mollison had a fascinating methodology for working with the chimps:

I would go up to them and kind of look in their arm hair and pretend I was looking for a flea, and then I'd make my way up to their chin. Then, I'd pull a hair, and they'd think I got a flea, so they'd stare at my finger to see what I'd taken off of them.

As they did, Mollison would snap their portrait, their eyes boring into his lens with intelligent intensity.

Though the animals he photographed were orphans of the bush meat and pet trade industries, Mollison was less interested in making a political point than a more existential one. "For me, the most interesting part of the portraits is that they get at the gray area between man and animal," he said.

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Scientists have been probing the same grey region, albeit in different terms. Cognitive scientists want to know how apes of various types perceive individual faces under different circumstances.

Scores of studies have focused on precisely how different monkeys perceive the faces of their own species and those of other apes (like ourselves). The differences and similarities not only tell us a little about our own evolutionary pathway, but also provide a window into the ape mind.

A common task is to see if the monkeys exhibit any behavioral differences on tasks when faces are presented normally versus upside down. In humans, when you flip a photo of a face upside down, we have a harder time processing it. That's evidence that our brains see faces as not just a combination of shapes and textures but as, well, a face. They call this "the inversion effect."

While the evidence for the inversion effect across species is still muddled, it appears that chimps, at least, do really process the faces of their own species the way humans do. According to a March paper in the journal of Animal Cognition, when chimpanzees look at faces, they linger over the eyes -- but only if the eyes are open and only if those faces are presented right-side up. That is to say, they respond quite like humans would.

The Japanese researchers took six chimps and sat them in front of a screen with a built-in eye tracker. A human helped hold their faces in the right position as the chimps stared at photos of other chimps.

The results demonstrated that chimpanzees looked at the eyes, nose, and mouth more frequently than would be expected on the basis of random scanning of faces. More specifically, they looked at the eyes longer than they looked at the nose and mouth when photographs of upright faces with open eyes were presented, suggesting that particular attention to the eyes represents a spontaneous face-scanning strategy shared among monkeys, apes, and humans.

Embedded deep in our primate brains, there's a blinking message about how to know what's going on socially: look into the eyes!

Mollison said that he originally intended to shoot all the photos at the same distance as a passport photo, but changed his mind after looking his first shoot with a gorilla. "The shot was a little bit closer than a passport photo but there's something about the intensity of the eyes," Mollison said. 

Citation: "Facial perception of conspecifics: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) preferentially attend to proper orientation and open eyes" Satoshi Hirata, Koki Fuwa, Keiko Sugama, Kiyo Kusunoki and Shin Fujita
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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