Home > Uncategorized > Britney Spears and Inverted Faces

Britney Spears and Inverted Faces


Hey, look! There’s Britney Spears. Hopefully you recognize her because who doesn’t love a good Britney moment? Even if you have never seen this face before, it looks normal right? Sure, it’s upside down, but flip it around and you’ve got yourself Britney Spears. Or not…

Britney Spears and the Thatcher Illusion


If you thought that the inverted photo looked unedited you are just one of many people who have been tricked by the Thatcher Illusion. What’s that? The Thatcher Illusion is a phenomenon in which different aspects of a face may be inverted, such as Britney’s eyes, but when the whole face is also upside down this is harder to notice. There could be a pair of lips that were inverted within the photo, or maybe the eyes. Turning the photo right side up reveals to the onlooker that the face in fact looks peculiar, practically grotesque, with its features all askew. Here we see that both Britney’s eyes and mouth were turned upside down relative to the rest of the face in the photo.

But why do we fall for this illusion so easily? Let’s talk about the complexities of face recognition. It is a speedy process that requires minimal cognitive effort. Emerging early in life, it allows us to go through our days with the ability to discriminate between kin and foe, and infer other characteristics about the people around us such as their emotions, age range, race, and gender. 

Now take a look to your left and right. If there are people around you, do you think you can guess their age? Probably not an exact age but I’d guess you can figure out their age range pretty accurately just in that one glance to your left or right. Now guess their gender, their race, maybe even their emotion. All of your guesses are most likely decently correct and quickly decided upon. This is because of your well-practiced face recognition. 

Long story short, face recognition is a super beneficial social tool. It allows us to quickly and easily interpret our environment. If your friend is sad, often the downturn of their lips tells you just that. Or maybe if they’re puzzled, a small furrow of the brow might just tell you to ask your friend what they are wondering about. 

But if that friend of yours is turned upside down, it might be more difficult to recognize these aspects of their face, and you may not even recognize them at all at first. Be honest, did it take you longer than usual to recognize Britney Spears when the photo of her face was turned upside down? That’s because face recognition is orientation sensitive, aka processing of certain positions of features is easier than other positions of features. In an article by Donnelly et al. (2012) it discusses how we processes faces by looking at their individual features, like the eyes and face discussed above, and how those features align. He also discusses how we are best at this when the face is upright. Like how you saw an upright image of Britney Spears and immediately noticed that the features weren’t aligned in what you consider a normal formation. When you develop face recognition, and as you see more and more faces throughout your lifetime, you become accustomed to the “normal” face. This is typically lips on the bottom, nose above that, eyes above that, etc etc. Our brains store this information, allowing us to eventually so quickly recognize that pattern as a face. So when a face or parts of a face are inverted the brain requires more cognitive resources to recognize it. 

Now that we know the factors behind it, let’s bring this back to the Thatcher Illusion. Orientation sensitivity within the Thatcher Illusion was studied in a behavioral experiment within The Thatcher Illusion Reveals Orientation Sensitive Dependence in Brain Regions Involved in Processing Facial Expressions performed by Psalta et al in 2014. In this experiment, in each trial participants were shown either two upright or two inverted images consecutively. These images were presented quickly and also either had different or the same faces. The participants were asked to indicate whether the two images were the same or different. The results of this experiment showed that participants consistently performed highly accurately on the test when shown upright images, but when inverted the accuracy significantly dropped. Inverted images of same-identity photos that had one Thatcherized and the other normal had the lowest overall accuracy. With no indicator of the photos being of different people the participants frequently were oblivious to the inverted features within the upside down Thatcherized photo. Also in the conditions with different faces in the inverted photos this proved to result in the least accuracy. These results prove to us this orientation sensitivity I have discussed is true, the accuracy dropping once a photo is inverted because of our brain’s familiarity with the pattern of a face being upright. 

Let’s go deeper in. What parts of the face really make us so sensitive to orientation? The mouth and the eyes. I wonder why. In another study by Psalta et al Orientation-Sensitivity Facial Features Explains the Thatcher Illusion (2014) the experiments within dig into these features against the Thatcher Illusion. First for the eyes, when asked if the images were identical or different, performance was above 50% for all conditions except the condition where both images were of the same person but one was inverted. Participants’ inability to accurately distinguish between a Thatcherized (inverted eyes within the upside down face) and a normal image of eyes when inverted showed that the eyes are heavily affected by the Thatcher Illusion. The same experiment conditions were performed on photos of mouths. And guess what! The mouth experiment proved to have the same results as the eyes. So, these are deemed to be super expressive features that heavily effect our orientation-specific encoding of faces. 

And the craziest part is this can happen with buildings too. Another study by Cornes et al (2011) Perceptual and Decisional Factors Influencing the Discrimination of Inversion in the Thatcher Illusion discussed this. The article discussed how people found it difficult to do tasks like this while looking at pictures of parts of churches. The Thatcher Illusion definitely had less of an effect on churches but it still slightly worked! Faces are much higher in orientation sensitivity, thus more easily prone to the effects of the Thatcher Illusion. Yet here we see it can happen to windows and doors on buildings too! Could they be the eyes and mouth of the building?

So, let’s put this all together. I’m sure you’ve learned not to trust an inverted face right away. So have I. The Thatcher Illusion tricks us into thinking an upside down photo of a face is normal even with inverted features within. It tricks us into not spotting differences in our own favorite Britney Spears’ face! And it is proof that we may be great at facial recognition, but turn that upside down and bye bye expertise.


Cornes, K., Donnelly, N., Godwin, H., & Wenger, M. J. (2011). Perceptual and decisional factors influencing the discrimination of inversion in the Thatcher illusion. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 37(3), 645–668. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020985

Donnelly, N., Cornes, K., & Menneer, T. (2012). An examination of the processing capacity of features in the Thatcher illusion. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 74(7), 1475–1487. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-012-0330-z

Psalta, L., Young, A. W., Thompson, P., & Andrews, T. J. (2014). Orientation-sensitivity to facial 

features explains the Thatcher illusion. Journal of Vision, 14(12).Psalta, L., Young, A. W., Thompson, P., & Andrews, T. J. (2014). The Thatcher illusion reveals orientation dependence in brain regions involved in processing facial expressions. Psychological Science, 25(1), 128–136. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613501521

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,
  1. No comments yet.
You must be logged in to post a comment.