These cells recognise faces and only faces

13 February 2006

There is a specific mechanism in our brains that deals only with recognising peoples’ faces and it is separate from the mechanism that allows us to recognise objects like houses, cars, horses or even people’s bodies, according to a study led by Dr Brad Duchaine at UCL. He shows how we recognise faces by analysing one man, who can’t tell one face from another, in a paper that will appear online in the journal ‘Cognitive Neuropsychology’ on 13th February 2006.

Dr Duchaine (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) said: “There have been many theories about whether there is a part of the brain that deals specifically with faces or whether faces and other objects are handled by the same brain areas. We’ve found that there is a different, very separate, bit of the brain that lets you recognise faces. If those cells aren’t working, someone may not be able to tell two faces apart but they will recognise two horses apart. This indicates that we go about looking at, analysing and recognising faces in a different way from how we recognise objects.

“Whether there is a separate social bit of the brain is an interesting scientific question that we want to answer. So that we could draw firm conclusions to prove our facial recognition theory, we addressed all the alternatives in a single case study – Edward, a 53 year-old married man with a PhD in theology and physics, who happens to be unable to recognise faces.”

For more than 35 years, researchers have debated whether face recognition is carried out by face-specific mechanisms or whether it involves more generic mechanisms that are also used for objects. Prosopagnosic patients (people who have difficulty recognising faces) have been some of the most powerful sources of evidence for there being face-specific mechanisms.

Read the full press release.