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How To Make Your Face (Digitally) Unforgettable

What makes a face more memorable? The exact features differ from face to face, but it helps when the face looks kind, trustworthy, slightly distinct and already familiar.
Courtesy of MIT Researchers
What makes a face more memorable? The exact features differ from face to face, but it helps when the face looks kind, trustworthy, slightly distinct and already familiar.

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This could take selfies to a whole new level.

Thanks to new research out of MIT, you might one day be able to subtly manipulate your picture to make it more memorable — meaning that people should be more likely to remember your face.

According to the research article:

"One ubiquitous fact about people is that we cannot avoid evaluating the faces we see in daily life ... In this flash judgment of a face, an underlying decision is happening in the brain — should I remember this face or not? Even after seeing a picture for only half a second we can often remember it."

There are subjective factors affecting how a face sticks in your memory — for example, if you know someone else who looks similar, you might find a new face more familiar. But researchers found that there is also a strong universal component to memorability. Some faces are just consistently more easily remembered.

Researchers found that certain associations help make a face memorable: familiarity, kindness, trustworthiness, uniqueness.

"The basic idea is that if there is someone you have never seen [before] and ... this person looks familiar — then, if this person looks kind, trustworthy and distinct, then it will be easier to remember them," says Aude Oliva, a principal research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.

But, she says, there's no "recipe" for how exactly to make facial features look like that; it differs from face to face. But the researchers are working toward creating an app or demo that would analyze thousands of versions of any face, each with tiny modifications, and figure out which is the most memorable — without changing other key aspects like attractiveness, age or expression.

"Manipulating faces is a very tricky process," Oliva says. "The changes must be subtle and keep the original features of the portrait."

What's the point of capitalizing on that? The researchers suggest that social-network users could upload more memorable profile pictures, or that job applicants could include a digitally remastered portrait to "more readily stick in the minds of potential employers," according to the MIT press release (although, take note, job applicants: Business Insider says including your photo with a resume is a no-no anyway).

It could also be used in movies to make the lead characters stick out and fade the extras into the background.

At first glance, the project could seem deceptive or disparaging, as if it's exploiting our memory or telling us our natural faces aren't good enough for LinkedIn. But Oliva stresses that the changes are very subtle. And, we wonder, is it any different than using Photoshop to touch up a profile picture or using makeup to make an anchor's face look more striking on TV?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.