Acta Psychologica 55 (1984) 215-230 North-Holland



Accepted August 1983 

Single-glance recognition of a familiar face cannot be explained as perception of a mediating image and subsequent reasoning processes to identify the image. This recognition is too fast for a normal reasoning process, neither can it be verbalised as such a process. But that does not simply  mean that the face is perceived "directly". This pre-verbal high-speed identification seems only possible by means of tacit  "micro-genetic" steps, which successively "actualise" the relevant information. When we present photographs of different familiar persons with film-speed on the same place, it seems possible to demonstrate this. ft was hypothesised that the first portrait "triggers" directing "schemata", capable of actualising relevant information. This "processing" of the first portrait provides general information, which specifies the presence of a face in a particular position, and perhaps even possible sets of familiar faces.
However, when a second portrait is presented after a critical interval, final identification steps, which originate from the previous phases, still have to be made. When both faces are in similar positions, these final tests are continued on the second portrait, in much the same way as must be the case with the next frame in a continuing shot of a movie picture. Especially when portraits also share common set reducing features, this interactive microgenesis initially produces a decreasing recognition function of stimulus onset asynchrony for the first portrait and simultaneously an increasing function for the second portrait.
These results are also discussed in terms of backward and forward visual masking.

The concept of " Aktualgenese" was introduced by the Leipzig-school of Gestalt psychology. It expressed the introspective notion that even single-glance perception is a hierarchical developing event over time and it was also the name for a set of rather deficient techniques to demonstrate this (cf. Smith 1957: Flavell and Draguns 1957: Navon 1977). Werner (1935) translated this concept, not wholly satisfactorily, as "Microgenesis" and invented his famous paradigm of successive presentation of a disc and an enveloping ring as a method of demonstration.
   In cognitive psychology these matters are discussed and explained in terms of a cycle (Neisser 1976) of data-driven, or bottom-up, and conceptually-driven, or top-down processing of information. Of course, especially since the publication of Gibson's (1979) final book, there is also a vehement debate about this "indirect" or "inferential" notion of perception (cf. UIlman 1980; Fodor and Pylyshyn 1981; Michaels and
CareIlo 1981; Turvey et al. 1981). But the oppositional ideas about a (apparently indeed) direct perception of, for instance, a face seen in a single glance are still resembling the old Gestalt notions in that they do not explain, and do not even focus on the crucial cognitive process (cf. Calis 1974, 1984). The conceptual framework of Gestalt psychology, much like Gibson's resonance theory, is in a sort of mixture of phenomenal terms and terms of analogue (isomorphic) processes, without much specification of the relation to discrete or categorical knowledge criteria that must guide the essentially decisive cognitive processes. At least with respect to the explanation of the perception of really complex objects (like faces) this means that they seem to be content with a gross misrepresentation of postulated " smart mechanisms" (Runeson 1977). It is not easy to imagine a "faceo-meter" on the analogy of the directly dynamo-driven automobile speedometer (not even a holographic one, cf. Haugeland 1981: 267) that would resonate to familiar faces -i.e. point to some discrete scale value -without any computation or
inference. Moreover, even if we would agree that the " pick-up" of additional energy properties in the physical context of the face might " tune" or " adjust" a specific resonator without computation, we would only describe a bottom-up device. Such a device does not yet explain the "pick-up" of the corresponding information, which Gibson therefore simply uses as a synonym of resonance. Thus we anyhow need to describe some loop from cognitive (memory) structures, that incorporates questioning, representing,
inferring, expecting, choosing and genesis. In short, we have to describe an intentional system (cf. Dennet t 1978).
   Perhaps also because of these conceptual and methodological reasons the "bidden" activity of Werner's "disrupted" disc could become the problematic phenomenon, instead of the microgenesis of what was actually seen. As such it was anyhow the origin of a deluge of research on visual masking and subliminal perception. Nevertheless Werner's technique of successively presenting separate identifiable visual stimuli might be suited for the (more adequately specified) original purpose of understanding the nature of the immediate perceptual genesis. Actually every ordinary movie picture or TV -recording presents a series of static images, that each may contribute to the specification of informational moments in a very fast genesis of some perceptual reality.
   In a first attempt to develop and adapt Werner's technique we made a film of about 50 different frames. In fact each frame of this film was a frontal portrait of a different familiar person, photographed under conditions of optimal standardisation ( eyes overlapping). When this strip of film was mounted in a close loop and projected at the normal rate of about 20 frames per second, a frontal face was perceived clearly. There was only some continuous deformation of the face as if it was seen through an oscillating and distorting screen. But it was not recognised as the face of a familiar person. Only when the projection was stopped, for example by interception of the light or closing the eyes, one of the last projected faces was recognised. To us this suggests, that some initial frame triggers a microgenetic identification procedure. When, however, the final identification step, originating from the previous phases, is "computed", the frame has been replaced by another one. Therefore this specific purposive identification is bound to fail. Of course this happens again and again. The perceiver never reaches a higher identification level than that of "some face in a frontal position".
   With this technique it is difficult to obtain adequate quantitative results. Therefore we have actually produced a number of films of this type, each only consisting of two frames. In this way we keep the single glance as pure as possible, because a second glance is not even possible. Moreover, if we present the subject with a' simple and natural perceptual task (who do you see?) the subject not only knows, but also can respond almost immediately. He or she does not need, and, with a proper design, cannot even use some verbal reasoning strategy to meet the demands of the task. Together with the introduction of a number of experimental and control conditions this is the essence of the experimental technique which is reported with its results in the rest of this paper .


We specifically want to test the hypothesis that, in the first phases of seeing an object, immediately after this "enters the visual field", there must be an identification procedure and an increasingly more specific classification. Thus at each level of this sequence it must be the classification, just reached, that, by virtue of a corresponding cognitive structure (program or schema), determines which, were and how features have to be "looked for" and found for succeeding more specific classifications.
   Now the basic assumption is that an identification procedure, started at the first photograph, will in certain conditions find a natural and logical continuation when a second photograph is introduced that spatially and meaningfully more or less combines with, or replaces, the earlier pattern. With respect to analogous movie projection one could think of a continuous registration of an event versus a shift of " shots".
Sometimes the data may change, but the identity of the object remains established and even shows further developments. Sometimes the data as well as the identity change.
   We roughly estimate the following stages in the identification process, which is started bv the input of a portrait-stimulus:

(a) Something round with specific features triggers general schema for faces.
(b) This schema appears to be appropriate and develops a general description of the portrait. A necessary and essential characteristic of this description is that it incorporates some spatial orientation of the face. lf this position description is adequate for the stimulus, it will become a basis for finding the essential features for a correct final identification.
(c) In the description is also a variety of features that triggers more specific schemata for the identification of some person. The most economical way at this moment would be that these features are still of a more general nature: for instance concerning age, gender, race, good looks, and the presence of spectacles.
(d) Finally such specific schemata are triggered that a familiar person eventually is identified. if the data fit these schemas.

If we choose the variables "Position", "Spectacles" and "Identity", we expect the corresponding perceptual steps to have this temporal order.



38 Ss, 8 females and 30 males, their ages ranging from 20 to 40 years, participated in the experiment. These were simply all available staff-members and doctoral-students of our department. They all were very familiar with the models on the photographs we describe in the next section.

Materials and design

We started by selecting six male "photo-models". All were staff-members of our department, about 35 years old, having no exceptional characteristics like very long hair, beards, birth-marks, etc.. Three of them typically wore spectacles. During the experiment these spectacles were identical. Their faces (in a neutral expression) were photographed in two standardised 3/4profile positions, in which the nose pointed to the right or to the left. These 12 photographs allowed 144 combinations of double portraits, that were arranged in the following 6 types. The reader may notice that the different types also have different numbers of pairs as shown in table 1.
Next we chose three SOAs: 0, 40 and 60 msec (see fig. 1) resulting in 3 X 144 = 432 trials. We added 12 trials in which the 12 photographs were to be presented one by one and arranged the resulting 444 trials in a random series.

Apparatus and procedure

The stimulus-series was recorded on 444 different tracks of an Ampex MD-400 video-disc, which could be monitored by a PDP-11 computer. The recordings were made in such a way that, if the two photographs were superposed on a display-scope, the frontal profiles in similar positions showed maximal overlap, while in the different positions the total external contours of the heads showed maximal overlap. A single video (European Standard, 50 Hz, 625lines) picture consists of odd and even lines. The lines are generated from top to bottom in a clustered way; the odd ones and the even ones. To generate
one complete (odd and even lines) video picture takes 40 msec.
   In case of two successive stimuli we acted on the basis of our impression that a relatively strong first and weak second stimulus produced clearer differences between

Table 1

                                                                                    Same                 Different
                                                                                    Position              position

Same model                                                                  12                        12
Different models, both wearing, or not wearing
Spectacles                                                                     24                        24
Different models, one wearing, one not
Wearing, spectacles                                                     36                        36