We glance at children say they have their father’s nose and their mother’s eyes, or their grandmother’s ears. And perhaps they do. But if we didn’t know which child was related to which parent, we’d have trouble trying pick them out by their noses or their chins alone. The question is, why?

Why is it better for us to look at the whole rather than pick out a feature? Are we even able to do both? A group of researchers took a look at this question using ziggerins, which are named shapes that are drawn in different styles (we’ve talked about greebles and facial recognition, but ziggerins are a new, made-up concept). For example, one ziggerin may look a bit like a toadstool with a stick coming out of its side. But one toadstool will be squarish with sharp edges while another is round with rounded edges, and another is pulled into a slight oval shape. The variation is analogous to the same letter being written in a different font.

Two groups of subjects learned the different classes of ziggerin. One group learned to classify the ziggerin by identifying shape and style. Another learned the ziggerin as individuals.

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As it turned out, both groups could do the jobs they trained for. Those who trained to recognize individual ziggerins improved over time, just as those who learned to classify and categorize them did. But then the groups were given a task which asked them to identify a composite ziggerin – in which the top half was done in one style and the bottom half was done in another style. The group trained to identify individuals, instead of categories, improved over time in this activity. The group that only learned to classify parts did not.

Researchers believe that this shows that people who learn whole shapes individually, instead of breaking them down into pieces, are better prepared for holistic processing. That may be the advantage to learning faces as a whole, instead of noses and mouths. Being able to see the face as a whole may be what helps you to pick out individual features in an unfamiliar face, like your grandfather’s smile.

[Source: Becoming A Ziggerin Expert]