Faces are among the most important visual stimuli we perceive, informing us not only about a person's identity, but also about their mood, sex, age and direction of gaze. The ability to extract this information within a fraction of a second of viewing a face is important for normal social interactions and has probably played a critical role in the survival of our primate ancestors. Considerable evidence from behavioural, neuropsychological and neurophysiological investigations supports the hypothesis that humans have specialized cognitive and neural mechanisms dedicated to the perception of faces (the face-specificity hypothesis). Here, we review the literature on a region of the human brain that appears to play a key role in face perception, known as the fusiform face area (FFA).
Section 1 outlines the theoretical background for much of this work. The face-specificity hypothesis falls squarely on one side of a longstanding debate in the fields of cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience concerning the extent to which the mind/brain is composed of: (i) special-purpose (‘domain-specific’) mechanisms, each dedicated to processing a specific kind of information (e.g. faces, according to the face-specificity hypothesis), versus (ii) general-purpose (‘domain-general’) mechanisms, each capable of operating on any kind of information. Face perception has long served both as one of the prime candidates of a domain-specific process and as a key target for attack by proponents of domain-general theories of brain and mind. Section 2 briefly reviews the prior literature on face perception from behaviour and neurophysiology. This work supports the face-specificity hypothesis and argues against its domain-general alternatives (the individuation hypothesis, the expertise hypothesis and others).
Section 3 outlines the more recent evidence on this debate from brain imaging, focusing particularly on the FFA. We review the evidence that the FFA is selectively engaged in face perception, by addressing (and rebutting) five of the most widely discussed alternatives to this hypothesis. In §4, we consider recent findings that are beginning to provide clues into the computations conducted in the FFA and the nature of the representations the FFA extracts from faces. We argue that the FFA is engaged both in detecting faces and in extracting the necessary perceptual information to recognize them, and that the properties of the FFA mirror previously identified behavioural signatures of face-specific processing (e.g. the face-inversion effect).
Section 5 asks how the computations and representations in the FFA differ from those occurring in other nearby regions of cortex that respond strongly to faces and objects. The evidence indicates clear functional dissociations between these regions, demonstrating that the FFA shows not only functional specificity but also area specificity. We end by speculating in §6 on some of the broader questions raised by current research on the FFA, including the developmental origins of this region and the question of whether faces are unique versus whether similarly specialized mechanisms also exist for other domains of high-level perception and cognition.
↵One caveat should be noted here, however. Several fMRI-adaptation studies (Tarr & Gauthier 2000) have used blocked designs, which is problematic because subjects are likely to pay less attention to a block in which the identical stimulus is presented many times in a row, than a block in which each stimulus is new. Thus, this design confounds adaptation with attention (which is well known to affect the FFA response (Wojciulik et al. 1998) leading to potential overestimation of adaptation effects. For this reason most current studies minimize this confound by using event-related methods to measure adaptation (Kourtzi & Kanwisher 2001).
- © 2006 The Royal Society