For Bradley Duchaine, there is definitely more than meets the eye where faces are concerned. With colleagues at Birkbeck College in the University of London, he is investigating the process of facial recognition, seeking to understand the complexity of what is actually taking place in the brain when one person looks at another. His studies target people who display an inability to recognize faces, a condition long known as prosopagnosia. Duchaine is trying to understand the neural basis of the condition while also make inferences about what is going wrong in terms of information processing—where in the stages that our brains go through to recognize a face is the system breaking down. A paper published in Brain details the most recent experimental results.
“We refer to prosopagnosia as a ‘selective’ deficit of face recognition, in that other cognitive process do not seem to be affected,” explains Duchaine, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences. “[People with the condition] might be able to recognize voices perfectly, which demonstrates that it is really a visual problem. In what we call pure cases, people can recognize cars perfectly, and they can recognize houses perfectly. It is just faces that are a problem.” The condition may be acquired as the result of a stroke, for example. But in the recent study, Duchaine focused on developmental prosopagnosia, in which a person fails to develop facial recognition abilities. “Other parts of the brain develop apparently normally,” Duchaine says. “These are intelligent people who have good jobs and get along fine but they can’t recognize faces.”