Face Perception


TDLC’s Kao-Wei Chua, Jennifer Richler and Isabel Gauthier from Vanderbilt University have discovered that the special strategy used to look at faces can be altered in just a few hours of training. Decades of research show that faces are processed more holistically (as wholes rather than simply the sum of their parts) than other objects, a strategy often thought to be quite automatic, even in children younger than 5 years old. The new research suggests that this strategy is due to attentional mechanisms that can be unlearned for an artificial race in less than 3 hours of a part-based attentional training. In addition, a follow-up study found that this holistic strategy can also be learned from scratch for novel non-face objects within the same timeframe.


Holistic processing is a hallmark of expert perception. In contrast, individuals with problems in face perception, such as people with autism, can show reduced or abnormal holistic processing. Thisresearch is helpful because it can provide a model for these problems. The specific manner in which normal participants processed faces after the part-based attentional training was strikingly similar to theway people with autism processed faces in prior work. The research also suggests that perceptual strategies for faces and objects may be more malleable than previously thought, which is encouraging for the development of treatments for visual recognition deficits.

Figure. A) two Tayios that differ only in their top halves and two Lunaris that differ only in their bottom halves, used during training. B) at test, cross-race composites are new faces made of parts similar to those that were diagnostic or non-diagnostic during training.



To teach participants how to attend to faces of novel races (see Figure), the researchers asked them to learn the names of individuals whose faces differed only on the top or only the bottom. At test, holistic processing was measured in a composite task and was only found for composites made of parts similar to those that were helpful (or diagnostic) during training.


Chua, K. W., Richler, J. J., & Gauthier, I. (2014). Becoming a Lunari or Taiyo Expert: Learned Attention to Parts Drives Holistic Processing of Faces, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. doi:10.1037/a0035895

Chua, K. W., Richler, J. J., & Gauthier, I. (2014). Does acquisition of holistic processing for novel objects depend on experience with diagnostic parts? To be presented at the annual meeting of the Vision Science Society.