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Of Faces and Races

26 July 2001 7:00 pm
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Face value. Activation of some brain regions is linked to face recognition.

Most people know from experience that it's easier to recognize faces of people from their own race than those of other races. In the August issue of Nature Neuroscience, cognitive scientists report that certain lower level brain areas appear to play a role. The results are some of the first to link brain activation patterns to social phenomena.

Many studies have shown that blacks recognize black faces more easily, whites are better at recognizing other whites, and so on. Nobody quite knows why. Some scientists think people pay more attention to faces from their own race or respond to them with greater emotion, and as a result remember them with greater accuracy. Other researchers think it's just a matter of experience; you're best at recognizing the type of face you see most often.

Social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues at Stanford University studied the phenomenon in nine black and 10 white subjects using a technique called magnetic resonance imaging. They presented the subjects with photographs of members of the two races. They found that in 17 of the 19 participants the fusiform face area, the brain's face-recognition region, was turned on most strongly when they saw somebody of their own color, indicating that it responds to certain kinds of faces with greater acuity.

New York University psychologist Elizabeth Phelps says the study is "clever," because it links a well-studied brain region to an important social phenomenon. She thinks the findings will expand the new field of social neuroscience, the study of how interaction with others affects the brain.

Related sites

Web site of study collaborator John Gabrieli
The First International Conference in the emerging field of social cognitive neuroscience

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