How does our brain know what is a face and what's not?
Patterns in the world, like this rock formation in Ebihens, France, can sometimes fortuitously look like human faces. In a new study, Meng et al. have used this phenomenon of pareidolia to investigate how the neural processing of faces differs in the left and right halves of the brain. Image: Erwan Mirabeau
Objects that resemble faces are everywhere. Whether it’s New Hampshire’s erstwhile granite “Old Man of the Mountain,” or Jesus’ face on a tortilla, our brains are adept at locating images that look like faces. However, the normal human brain is almost never fooled into thinking such objects actually are human faces.
“You can tell that it has some ‘faceness’ to it, but on the other hand, you’re not misled into believing that it is a genuine face,” says Pawan Sinha, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.
A new study from Sinha and his colleagues reveals the brain activity that underlies our ability to make that distinction. On the left side of the brain, the fusiform gyrus — an area long associated with face recognition — carefully calculates how “facelike” an image is. The right fusiform gyrus then appears to use that information to make a quick, categorical decision of whether the object is, indeed, a face.
This distribution of labor is one of the first known examples of the left and right sides of the brain taking on different roles in high-level visual-processing tasks, Sinha says, although hemispheric differences have been seen in other brain functions, most notably language and spatial perception.
Lead author of the paper, published Jan. 4 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is Ming Meng, a former postdoc in Sinha’s lab and now an assistant professor at Dartmouth College. Other authors are Tharian Cherian ’09 and Gaurav Singal, who recently earned an MD from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and is now a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Face versus nonface
Many earlier studies have shown that neurons in the fusiform gyrus, located on the brain’s underside, respond preferentially to faces. Sinha and his students set out to investigate how that brain region decides what is and is not a face, particularly in cases where an object greatly resembles a face.
To help them do that, the researchers created a continuum of images ranging from those that look nothing like faces to genuine faces. They found images that very closely resemble faces by examining photographs that machine vision systems had falsely tagged as faces. Human observers then rated how facelike each of the images were by doing a series of one-to-one comparisons; the results of those comparisons allowed the researchers to rank the images by how much they resembled a face.
The research team then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of research subjects as they categorized the images. Unexpectedly, the scientists found different activity patterns on each side of the brain: On the right side, activation patterns within the fusiform gyrus remained quite consistent for all genuine face images, but changed dramatically for all nonface images, no matter how much they resembled a face. This suggests that the right side of the brain is involved in making the categorical declaration of whether an image is a face or not.
Meanwhile, in the analogous region on the left side of the brain, activity patterns changed gradually as images became more facelike, and there was no clear divide between faces and nonfaces. From this, the researchers concluded that the left side of the brain is ranking images on a scale of how facelike they are, but not assigning them to one category or another.
“From the computational perspective, one speculation one can make is that the left does the initial heavy lifting,” Sinha says. “It tries to determine how facelike is a pattern, without making the final decision on whether I’m going to call it a face.”
Key to the research was imaging-analysis technology that allowed the scientists to look at patterns of activity across the fusiform gyrus.
“This is a relatively recent innovation — looking at the pattern of activation as opposed to overall activation,” says Thomas Busey, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, who was not involved in this research. “Anytime you have a measure that replicates and correlates with human behavior, that seems to be a pretty compelling story.”
Timing is instructive
The researchers found that activation in the left side of the fusiform gyrus preceded that of the right side by a couple of seconds, supporting the hypothesis that the left side does its job first and then passes information on to the right side.
Sinha says that given the sluggishness of fMRI signals (which rely on blood-flow changes), the timing does not yet constitute definitive evidence, “but it’s a very interesting possibility because it begins to tease apart this monolithic notion of face processing. It’s now beginning to get at what the constituents are of that overall face-processing system.”
The researchers hope to obtain more solid evidence of temporal relationships between the two hemispheres with studies using electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetoencephalography (MEG), two technologies that offer a much more precise view of the timing of brain activity. They also hope to discover how and when the right and left sides of the fusiform gyrus develop these independent functions by studying blind children who have their sight restored at a young age. Many such children have been treated by Project Prakash, an effort initiated by Sinha to find and treat blind children in India.
Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This story is republished courtesy of MIT News (web.mit.edu/newsoffice/), a popular site that covers news about MIT research, innovation and teaching.
- Facing complexity in the left brain/right brain paradigm Jan 04, 2012 | not rated yet | 0
- Researcher uses card trick to reveal unconscious knowledge Nov 17, 2011 | not rated yet | 0
- Humans and chimps register faces by using similar brain regions Dec 18, 2008 | not rated yet | 0
- Patterns of connections reveal brain functions Jan 03, 2012 | not rated yet | 0
- Imaging instruction: Researchers produce 'primer' to guide the use of STORM Nov 28, 2011 | not rated yet | 0
- Motion perception revisited: High Phi effect challenges established motion perception assumptions Apr 23, 2013 | 3 / 5 (2) | 2
- Anything you can do I can do better: Neuromolecular foundations of the superiority illusion (Update) Apr 02, 2013 | 4.5 / 5 (11) | 5
- The visual system as economist: Neural resource allocation in visual adaptation Mar 30, 2013 | 5 / 5 (2) | 9
- Separate lives: Neuronal and organismal lifespans decoupled Mar 27, 2013 | 4.9 / 5 (8) | 0
- Sizing things up: The evolutionary neurobiology of scale invariance Feb 28, 2013 | 4.8 / 5 (10) | 14
Pressure-volume curve: Elastic Recoil Pressure don't make sense
May 18, 2013 From pressure-volume curve of the lung and chest wall (attached photo), I don't understand why would the elastic recoil pressure of the lung is...
If you became brain-dead, would you want them to pull the plug?
May 17, 2013 I'd want the rest of me to stay alive. Sure it's a lousy way to live but it beats being all-the-way dead. Maybe if I make it 20 years they'll...
MRI bill question
May 15, 2013 Dear PFers, The hospital gave us a $12k bill for one MRI (head with contrast). The people I talked to at the hospital tell me that they do not...
Ratio of Hydrogen of Oxygen in Dessicated Animal Protein
May 13, 2013 As an experiment, for the past few months I've been consuming at least one portion of Jell-O or unflavored Knox gelatin per day. I'm 64, in very...
Alcohol and acetaminophen
May 13, 2013 Edit: sorry for the typo in the title , can't edit I looked around on google quite a bit and it's very hard to find precise information on the...
Marie Curie's leukemia
May 13, 2013 Does anyone know what might be the cause of Marie Curie's cancer
- More from Physics Forums - Medical Sciences
More news stories
For combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, 'fear circuitry' in the brain never rests
Chronic trauma can inflict lasting damage to brain regions associated with fear and anxiety. Previous imaging studies of people with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, have shown that these brain regions can over-or ...
Neuroscience May 18, 2013 | 5 / 5 (1) | 0 |
The neural machinery underlying our olfactory sense continues to be an enigma for neuroscience. A recent review in Neuron seeks to expand traditional ideas about how neurons in the olfactory bulb might encode information about ...
Neuroscience May 17, 2013 | 4 / 5 (1) | 0 |
(Medical Xpress)—What if the quality of your work depends more on your focus on the piano keys or canvas or laptop than your musical or painting or computing skills? If target users can be convinced, they ...
Neuroscience May 17, 2013 | 3.7 / 5 (3) | 0 |
Neurological disorders can have a devastating impact on the lives of sufferers and their families.
Neuroscience May 17, 2013 | 5 / 5 (1) | 0 |
If you're a left-brain thinker, chances are you use your right hand to hold your cell phone up to your right ear, according to a newly published study from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Neuroscience May 16, 2013 | 2 / 5 (2) | 0 |
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have identified a potential new risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea: asthma. Using data from the National Institutes of Health (Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)-funded Wisconsin ...
3 hours ago | not rated yet | 0 |
The hunt for an HIV vaccine has gobbled up $8 billion in the past decade, and the failure of the most recent efficacy trial has delivered yet another setback to 26 years of efforts.
8 hours ago | not rated yet | 0
A new study looking at sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) and markers for Alzheimer's disease (AD) risk in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and neuroimaging adds to the growing body of research linking the two.
4 hours ago | not rated yet | 0 |
In their quest to learn more about the variability of cells between and within tissues, biomedical scientists have devised tools capable of simultaneously measuring dozens of characteristics of individual ...
4 hours ago | 5 / 5 (1) | 0 |
Scientists at Johns Hopkins have turned their view of osteoarthritis (OA) inside out. Literally. Instead of seeing the painful degenerative disease as a problem primarily of the cartilage that cushions joints, ...
4 hours ago | 5 / 5 (1) | 0 |
The devastating effect of Alzheimer's disease on bilingual people has been thrown into focus in Canada, where the sudden loss of a second language can leave sufferers feeling like strangers in their own country.
6 hours ago | not rated yet | 0