Current studies

Here are studies ongoing in our lab.

Facial expression processing in prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia is defined by deficits in recognising facial identity, but processing of other facial information may or may not be impaired. We’re characterising how well people with prosopagnosia process facial expression across a wide range of tasks. This study will tell us whether lifelong prosopagnosia can be specific to particular aspects of facial information, and in doing help map out potential subtypes of the disorder.

Domain specificity in face processing. An influential theory holds that face processing is carried out by mechanisms that are not specialised for faces per se, but rather for any objects with which we have acquired lots of experience. On this theory, prosopagnosia is not an impairment of specialised mechanisms for faces, but rather an impairment of generic mechanisms for obtaining object expertise. We’re testing this theory by having people with prosopagnosia learn to acquire expertise with objects and faces using the same training paradigm.

The role of eyes in face recognition. Most of us are good at recognising faces, but how we do it is unclear. Are some face features more diagnostic than others? Recent studies using contrast-negated faces (like those in photo negatives) suggest that having normal contrast in the eye region is critical. We’re currently investigating whether this eye effect occurs for familiar and novel faces alike, and whether it depends on the kinds of face processing tasks that need to be solved.

Rapid detection of faces. We can reliably pick out faces in complex scenes in <150 ms, faster than we can pick out other non-face objects. We even do this when we’re told not to detect the face, suggesting that there’s some sort of “face reflex”. We’re running a series of experiments aimed at localising this ultra-rapid face detection in the broader hierarchy of visual processing, for example by manipulating spatial frequency, image orientation, contrast polarity, and figure/ground segregation.

Sensitivity to biological motion. One of the coolest stimuli in all of vision sciences is the point-light display: a bunch of dots placed on major joints of a human or animal in motion. Our brain is very sensitive to biological motion (even under heavy noise) and uses it to obtain a wide range of social cues including identity, emotion, gender, and action. We’re using psychophysics and eye tracking to figure out how fast people can recognise biological motion, whether they use some joints more than others, and whether this ability is linked to other basic social skills such as face processing.