Why we ‘see’ Johnny Depp instead of his stunt double

A technique our brain uses to recognize faces explains why very few of us notice the difference between actors and stunt doubles in movies. (Credit: Alfonso Jimenez/Flickr)

Our brain’s ability to recognize faces in changing environments helps us survive—and also explains why we don’t notice stunt doubles in movies.

“Our visual system loses sensitivity to stunt doubles in movies, but that’s a small price to pay for perceiving our spouse’s identity as stable,” says David Whitney, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley.


“If we didn’t have this bias of seeing a face as the same from one moment to the next, our perception of people would be very confusing. For example, a friend or relative would look like a completely different person with each turn of the head or change in light and shade,” says Alina Liberman, a doctoral student in neuroscience and lead author of a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

Previous research in Whitney’s lab established the existence of a “continuity field” in which we visually meld similar objects seen within a 15-second time frame. That study helped explain why we miss movie-mistake jump cuts, such as Harry Potter’s T-shirt abruptly changing from a crewneck into a henley shirt in the Order of the Phoenix.

The latest study builds on that by testing how a continuity field applies to our observation and recognition of faces, arguably one of the most important human social and perceptual functions, researchers say.

“Without the extraordinary ability to recognize faces, many social functions would be lost. Imagine picking up your child at school and not being able to recognize which kid is yours,” Whitney says.

“Fortunately, this type of face blindness is rare. What is common, however, are changes in viewpoint, noise, blur, and lighting changes that could cause faces to appear very different from moment to moment. Our results suggest that the visual system is biased against such wavering perception in favor of continuity.”

Target face

To test this phenomenon, study participants viewed dozens of faces that varied in similarity. Each six seconds, a “target face” flashed on the computer screen for less than a second, followed by a series of faces that morphed with each click of an arrow key from one to the next. Participants clicked through the faces until they found the one that most closely matched the “target face.”

Time and again, the face they picked was a combination of the two most recently seen target faces.

“Regardless of whether study participants cycled through many faces until they found a match or quickly named which face they saw, perception of a face was always pulled towards face identities they saw within the last 10 seconds,” Liberman says. “Importantly, if the faces that participants recently saw all looked very distinct, the visual system did not merge these identities together, indicating that this perceptual pull does depend on the similarity of recently seen faces.”

In a follow up experiment, the faces were viewed from different angles instead of frontal views to ensure that study participants were not latching on to a particular feature, say, bushy eyebrows or a distinct shadow across a cheekbone, but actually recognizing the entire visage.

“Sequential faces that are somewhat similar will display a much more striking family resemblance than is actually present, simply because of this continuity field for faces,” Liberman says.

Source: UC Berkeley