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.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...


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.