How Does Your Brain Recognize Faces?

Researchers find specific clusters of nerves are responsible for identifying facial differences.
Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer

Though names often escape us, most people are able to remember at least something about the facial features of people they meet, even briefly. But there are people who are not able to distinguish one face from another.

Now, neurologists have identified two clusters of nerves that make up a part of the brain responsible for how we identify facial features.

“It’s known in patients to be very important to detect faces,” said Josef Parvizi, a neurologist at Stanford University Medical Center in California.

To determine what areas of the brain are responsible for facial recognition, Parvizi placed electrodes on the brain of a patient named Ron Blackwell. Then, certain brain neurons were stimulated and Blackwell was asked a series of questions. Parvizi and his team watched in amazement as Blackwell lost his ability to recognize faces.

Parvizi said, “We have asked him to look straight ahead, where I’m standing, so I’m standing in front of his bed.”  

Blackwell replied, “Your nose got saggy and went to the left, you almost looked like somebody I seen before, but somebody different.” 

But even though Blackwell could not see the doctor’s face, he could see everything else.

“Did I keep my gender?” asked Parvizi. 

“Yes,” said Blackwell.

“How do you know I’m not a female? “ Parvizi asked.

Blackwell replied, “Because you’re still wearing a suit and tie.”

“Oh you could see the suit and tie, yeah?” Parvizi asked. 

“Only your face changed, everything else was the same,” said Blackwell.

The electrodes used during the experiment laid atop the brain and served as a kind of microphone that could listen in on brain activity.

“It tells us we see the world, we are conscious about the world, we perceive the world with the help of neurons that do nothing but electrically send signals,” Parvizi said.

Studying parts of the brain could help scientists understand and treat disorders like dyslexia and schizophrenia, and help researchers gain insight into how memory works.


Get Inside The Science:

Precisely Targeted Electrical Brain Stimulation Alters Perception of Faces, Scientists Find

Stanford School of Medicine

Josef Parvizi, Stanford School of Medicine 

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California.  She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.

I’ve dedicated my time to reporting and producing stories focused on medical, science and technology. I created a nationally award winning series dedicated to promoting women and their great accomplishments.  Now I’ve taken that expertise outside the traditional TV news format and broadened the viewership to people around the world.