Unmasking Masks – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Unmasking Masks

Cultures throughout time and around the world have created and used masks. It’s a universal form of cultural expression, says Assistant Professor of Psychology Daniel Graham – and one at the center of his latest research.

At the nexus of psychology and aesthetics, Graham is answering questions about masks, including how the proportions, such as the distance between the eyes, may differ from that of a human face. In doing so, he hopes to gain a richer sense of how people interpret and respond to masks based on what psychologists and aestheticians already know about perceptions of human faces.

“We think that the human brain averages together all of the faces you’ve ever seen,” Graham says. “In that case, every face that someone views might have some relationship to that average.”

Initial results show that compared to human faces, masks have a greater exaggeration of the distance between each eye, as well as the eyes and the mouth. Portraits also show an exaggeration of those proportions, but to a lesser extent.

To better understand masks, Graham has welcomed student researchers to assist with the project. Nina Prescott ’17, a psychology major, has been performing background research, mask measurements and statistical analysis.

“My prior studies in psychology and sensation and perception, as well as my personal interest in art, make this research fascinating and motivating for me,” says Prescott, who is minoring in geoscience, environmental studies, and is in the Writing Colleagues Program. “I have had the opportunity to put my studies into context, challenging and strengthening my abilities as an active thinker and student in the field of psychology. The experience in research I am gaining is extremely valuable in determining potential career paths.”

Prescott is building upon work that Catherine Forman ’16 started in 2015 when she began collecting images of masks from various collections around the world and determining the ratio of the features. Prescott is using PhotoShop to take measurements of the masks and standardizing the data set by selecting examples that fit a certain criteria. Graham says it’s a painstaking task.

Graham says part of the project deals with morphing, or blending of many of the masks together to get an average. “As you average more and more masks, do you see an increase in the aesthetic preference for what you are seeing? With a composite of a lot of masks, we want to see how quickly that increases, or if it levels off,” he says.

In addition to his work on masks, Graham has been investigating how perceptions may change over one’s lifespan. He’s in the process of finalizing a scholarly paper, which includes research support from Cameron Pugach ’15, who is in a forensic psychology graduate program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Pugach assisted with the data collection.

“What we’ve found is that young adults are the most stable in their preferences,” says Graham, who presented at the Eastern American Society for Aesthetics in Philadelphia this past spring. “Young people ages 3-9 and the elderly over age 70 are much less stable. It sort of upends our assumption about how consistent people are in their tastes … Some may think of young adults as fickle and changing their minds a lot, but this suggests that they have a consistency over time.”

Graham says they also are investigating how memory plays a role in perception and that the findings could have an impact on the understanding of cognitive aging.