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About Faces
How brains are wired to recognize mugs
By Lisa Scanlon

In research that could help people who suffer from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces, scientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research are studying how the brain processes facial features.

Nancy Kanwisher, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, and postdoc Galit Yovel focus on an area of the brain called the fusiform face area (FFA), which, as its name might suggest, has long been suspected to play a role in face recognition. Kanwisher and Yovel have investigated whether the FFA works exclusively to process faces or whether it processes spatial relations among parts of other objects as well. “It’s known that faces are processed differently than other objects,” says Yovel. “The question is how differently.”

Kanwisher and Yovel instructed volunteers to identify differences between pictures of faces that were identical except for the spacing of their features and between pairs of faces that shared most, but not all, of their features. The subjects also examined houses with variously spaced windows or doors and with different windows or doors. Because the FFA was found to be more active when subjects were looking at faces than when they were looking at houses, regardless of how the objects differed, the researchers believe the FFA is wired specifically to recognize faces. Yovel says understanding the FFA could inspire training techniques to help people with prosopagnosia.

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