June 25, 2015

How does the brain recognize faces from minimal information?

Higher brain regions are only activated when predictions are false.

(June 25, 2015)  Our brain recognizes objects within milliseconds, even if it only receives rudimentary visual information. Researchers believe that reliable and fast recognition works because the brain is constantly making predictions about objects in the field of view and is comparing these with  incoming information. Only if mismatches occur in this process do higher areas of the brain have to be notified of the error in order to make active corrections to the predictions. Now scientists at the Goethe University have confirmed this hypothesis. As they report in the current edition of the "Journal of Neuroscience", those brain waves that are sent to higher brain areas increase their activity when a predictive error occurs. These results also promise a better understanding of schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders.

In order to induce predictive errors in their subjects, the researchers showed them so-called Mooney faces, named after their inventor Craig Mooney. These are photographs of faces which have been reduced entirely to black and white. We usually recognize these easily. We can even give details about the gender, age and facial expression – despite the fact that only the borders between black and white contain any information about the face. Moreover, even this minimal amount of information is ambiguous, because the boundaries either represent the transition between light and cast shadows or they confine the object itself.

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