New study examines brain processes behind facial recognition

April 18, 2011

When you think you see a face in the clouds or in the moon, you may wonder why it never seems to be upside down.

It turns out the answer to this seemingly minor detail is that your has been wired not to.

Using tests of and (fMRI), Lars Strother and colleagues at The University of Western Ontario's world-renowned Centre for Brain & Mind recently measured activity in two regions of the brain well known for facial recognition and found they were highly sensitive to the orientation of people's faces.

The team had participants look at faces that had been camouflaged and either held upright or turned upside down. They found that right-side up faces were easier to see – and activated the face areas in the brain more strongly – thus demonstrating that our brains are specialized to understand this orientation.

The surprise came when they found this bias in brain activity also applies to pictures of animals.

Like faces, animals are biological visual forms that have a typical upright orientation. In the study, published in the current issue of the journal PLoS ONE, Strother and his colleagues propose that the human visual system allows us to see familiar objects – not just faces – more easily when viewed in the familiar upright orientation.

They also demonstrated this bias can be found in the neural activity of those brain areas involved with the most basic steps in visual processing, when visual inputs from the eyes first reach the brain.

In future research, the team hopes to chase down how this bias is set up in these early visual areas of the brain – and what this tells us about how brain circuits can be modified by knowledge and experience.

Explore further: Twin study indicates genetic basis for processing faces, places

Related Stories

Face facts: People don't stand out in crowds

January 18, 2008

Why is it difficult to pick out even a familiar face in a crowd? We all experience this, but the phenomenon has been poorly understood until now. The results of a recent study may have implications for individuals with face-recognition ...

How do we combine faces and voices?

March 9, 2011

Human social interactions are shaped by our ability to recognise people. Faces and voices are known to be some of the key features that enable us to identify individual people, and they are rich in information such as gender, ...

Recommended for you

A new window to understanding the brain

August 29, 2016

Scientists in recent years have made great strides in the quest to understand the brain by using implanted probes to explore how specific neural circuits work.

Special nerve cells cause goose bumps and nipple erection

August 29, 2016

The sympathetic nerve system has long been thought to respond the same regardless of the physical or emotional stimulus triggering it. However, in a new study from Karolinska Institutet published in the Nature Neuroscience, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.