Science of perception

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Adult humans and primates are face experts, able to quickly and accurately spot children in a crowded mall or mates in a thick forest. This critical adaptation has given rise to a decades-long scientific debate: Does the human brain contain a region used exclusively for identifying faces?

Research conducted at Brown University and published in the current online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports a mounting body of evidence that such a "face module" does not exist. Instead, researchers are finding that the same networks of neurons used to process faces are also used by people who are expert in making all kinds of fine visual distinctions, from radiologists to dog show judges.

In a novel experiment, subjects were trained to become experts on computer-generated creatures called Greebles. Over a two-week period, in a series of one-hour sessions, subjects were shown images of Greebles, whose appendages make them unique. Conceived by Brown Professor Michael J. Tarr and former students Isabel Gauthier and Scott Yu, Greebles' subtle variations in shape and configuration render them visually difficult to identify, making them a perfect control image for the human face.

After an average of eight sessions, subjects could name individual Greebles quickly and accurately. Then they were connected to 64 electroencephalogram (EEG) leads as they sat in front of a computer. Either a Greeble or a YUFO another computer-generated creature they'd never seen before flashed in the center of the screen. A fraction of a second later, a human face appeared to the right or left. Subjects pressed a key corresponding to whether the face appeared to the right or to the left. Each subject saw a total of 240 image pairs in random order.

The results: Electrical current picked up by the EEG revealed that when viewing faces and Greebles objects the subjects were expert in the images com

Contact: Wendy Lawton
Brown University

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