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On Scienceblogs.com, we find an article titled When crime-fighting tools go bad: Problems with the face-composite system that documents the difficulty that people have in describing faces.

The article here describes a problem with the use of software that helps police create sketches of perpetrators based on their victims’ verbal descriptions. The problem is that, when the victim only sees the perpetrator for a few seconds, but works with police on creating the software image for a much longer time, the victim remembers the sketch rather than the face of the actual perpetrator and selects people from police lineups accordingly.

This problem would not exist if natural language were up to the task of describing faces exactly, but apparently it isn’t.

Have very many studies been done on the difficulties that people have in verbally describing faces and other visual stimuli?

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I think there've been a fair number of studies done in the realm of sign language recognition. One that could be a good place to get started is Visual memory for shapes in deaf signers and nonsigners and in hearing signers and nonsigners: atypical lateralization and enhancement by Cattani A, Clibbens J. and Perfect TJ.

Fringe comment: Is this really a linguistics issue? I would challenge the conclusion that natural language does not have a good mechanism for describing faces... It seems to me that it's an issue of perception: Most people don't perceive visual details in a way that they can verbalize them. An exception, I suspect, is artists. If you asked an experienced portrait artist to describe someone's face, I think they'd do a very good job of it.

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  • Has this been tested? I'll grant that the assumption that the world's languages are equally good communication tools is justified. One could write a monograph on nuclear physics in any natural language provided only that the necessary vocabulary is present or added. But this does not imply that natural languages, taken as a group, are equally good at conveying all types of information. It would be interesting if research were done on your artists and their communication with each other and non-artists. As for sign language, can signers describe faces any better than speakers? – James Grossmann Apr 20 '12 at 3:25
  • Those are empirical questions! Though no studies yet that I am aware of / can find. – Tim Gorichanaz Apr 20 '12 at 3:45

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