Gravity and observer's body orientation influence the visual perception of human body postures.
Faces are difficult to recognise when presented upside down. This effect of face inversion was effectively demonstrated with the 'Thatcher illusion' by Thompson (1980 Perception 9 483-484). It has been tacitly assumed that this effect is due to inversion relative to retinal coordinates. Here we tested whether it is due to egocentric (i.e. retinal) inversion or whether the orientation of the body with respect to gravity also influences the face-inversion effect. A 3-D human turntable was used to test subjects in 5 different body-tilt (roll) orientations: 0 degree, 45 degrees, 90 degrees, 135 degrees, and 180 degrees. The stimuli consisted of 4 'normal' and 4 'thatcherised' faces and were presented in 8 different orientations in the picture plane. The subjects had to decide in a yes-no task whether the faces were 'normal' or 'thatcherised'. Analysis of the d' values revealed a significant effect of stimulus orientation and body tilt. The significant effect of body tilt was due to a drop in d' values in the 135 degrees orientation. This result is compared to findings of studies on the subjective visual vertical, where larger errors occurred in body-tilt orientations between 90 degrees and 180 degrees. The present findings suggest that the face-inversion effect relies mainly on retinal coordinates, but that in head-down body-tilt orientations around 135 degrees the gravitational reference frame has a major influence on the perception of faces.