Protecting banknotes from forgery is a key challenge for all major central banks. Every year, hundreds of thousands of counterfeit notes are seized, representing a tremendous loss for the economy. In 2014 alone, 838’000 fake euro notes were seized by the authorities, the €50 accounting for more than the half of the amount. To cope with the problem, the European Central Bank (ECB) decided to turn to science and called on David Eagleman, neuroscientist, to find new solutions.
The ECB sought to understand how the brain perceives banknotes and which security features should be added or enhanced to make it easier for the public to authenticate them. The main issue is that people hardly ever notice fake notes which usually surface only once they’re processed by banks thanks to their forged machine-readable codes. Yet various campaigns have been carried out to raise people’s awareness and encourage them to be more attentive to sophisticated features such as colour-changing inks, watermarks and holograms.
The results of Eagleman’s tests demonstrate that our brain sees the global aspect of the banknote focusing on special features only if it is asked to. In other words, people do not pay attention to details and might thus not notice that a crucial pattern is missing as long as the note matches the general template. As a consequence, Eagleman recommended to get rid of “decorative” details that form distractions for the eye and to favour the use of a single recognizable feature in the middle of a blank note. The ECB reminded however that banknotes are also the showcase of a country’s history and culture and that the artistic aspect plays a significant role.
Finally, Eagleman proposed to replace the monuments that appear as watermarks with portraits of renowned persons as humans have much more ease to distinguish between faces than edifices. Indeed, the ECB chose a new watermark for its last series: the portrait of the mythological princess “Europa”.
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