OSAKA, Japan — For many people, looking in the mirror may not seem very rewarding, especially those who are more critical of their appearance. However, according to a recent study, looking in the mirror can actually be mentally rewarding.
Researchers in Japan claim that the human brain can naturally, and remarkably, identify our faces unconsciously. In other words, without thinking about it, we tend to find our way among images (and even reflections), focusing specifically on our facial features. The Osaka University team believe they have determined the reasoning behind this rapid self-identification and why people look at each other so often.
When it comes to distinguishing our own faces from others, the hypothalamus releases dopamine. Known as the “feel-good hormone,” this neurotransmitter helps boost motivation and feelings of reward. Scientists discovered stimulation of this reward circuit when individuals deciphered their own faces subliminally.
“We are better at recognizing our own face than the faces of others, even when the information is transmitted subliminally,” lead author Chisa Ota said in a statement from the university. “However, it is unclear whether this benefit involves the same brain or different areas activated by the suprathreshold presentation of our face.”
What areas of the brain react to seeing your face?
The researchers either flashed images that included the person’s face or outlines that resembled their own facial features, as well as images of faces containing altered features. The team also looked at the brain’s response to images of faces containing altered features. As a control, the study authors also showed each participant pictures of strangers. They then examined neural activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This allowed the team to determine the possible variations induced by the “hidden” images.
The hidden images of their own faces unconsciously stimulated several brain areas, including those that interpret facial information. The amygdala, a tiny region below the hypothalamus, showed more activity when the participants looked unconsciously at their own face. This area of the brain links fear to emotions and survival instincts, but it can also link emotions to memories. This study found that the amygdala remained active whenever the person recognized their own face, regardless of the transformed images.
“The results have provided us with new insights into the neural mechanisms of self-face advantage,” adds lead author Tamami Nakano. “We found that activation in the ventral tegmental area, which is a central part of the dopamine reward pathway, was stronger for subliminal presentations of the participant’s face compared to the faces of others.”
Looking in a mirror is different from seeing a picture.
This study also revealed that our brain reacts differently depending on whether we see our own face consciously or unconsciously. This means that either different areas of the brain activate or the same area uses different functioning mechanisms when we look deliberately in the mirror compared to if we see our face in a group photo without being fully aware of it. The team plans to continue their research to determine the exact mechanism behind this difference.
“Our results indicate that the dopamine reward pathway is involved in enhanced processing of one’s own face even when the information is subliminal,” Nakano concludes. “Furthermore, discrimination of one’s own face from those of others appears to be based on information from the parts of the face.”
Although it’s not entirely clear how the brain processes these subliminal images, researchers believe they now know the areas in which this occurs. This gives scientists a starting point for this type of research. On the one hand, this finding may have relevance in the manipulation of self-motivation, since the dopamine network has a direct link in the perception of subconscious self-facial images. Additionally, the involvement of the amygdala points to a connection between emotions and self-image – hence why we look in the mirror!
The study appears in the journal Cerebral cortex.