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Facial recognition and memory is innately human; being able to recognise faces is something fundamental to our ability to communicate and survive. Familiar faces are easy to recognise and humans can learn to identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images: for example, have you ever met President Trump? Probably not, but you can certainly recognise his face.

A recent study from the University of Cambridge found that this ability to recognise faces is more than just a human phenomenon. Researchers from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience trained eight sheep to recognise the faces of celebrities like Barack Obama, Emma Watson and Fiona Bruce. Initial recognition training involved sheep receiving a reward of food by breaking an infrared beam near the screen showing a celebrity photograph. The initial tests then presented two images: one showing the celebrity and one showing a stranger. The results showed that the celebrity was picked eight out of ten times. When the faces were shown at an angle, the sheep’s performance dropped by about 15%, comparable to that seen when humans perform the same task. Sheep were also seen to recognise photos of their human handlers without any pre-training, and were observed to do a ‘double-take’ before choosing the correct image.

The implications of these results are that, at least in the scientific domain, sheep can be useful models to help us understand disorders of the brain such as Huntington’s disease. Beyond research, Professor Jenny Morton who led the study said that “anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals.” Perhaps then there are wider implications on the way in which sheep will be both understood and perceived in years to come.

Philosophy, Psychology and PPE applicants may want to look into the implications of how our perception of animal intelligence may influence the social and economic landscape. Natural Sciences (B) and Medicine applicants may want to explore how studies like this enhance our ability to understand human diseases.

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