Are you better at recognizing faces or inanimate objects such as cars? A new study has found that one’s brain structure may reveal the answer.
According to researchers, the thinner the brain’s gray matter, the better one is at recognizing faces, while thicker gray matter is linked to being better able to identify objects.
For almost two decades, neuroscientists have known that a particular area of the brain, called the fusiform face area (FFA), plays a vital role in the brain’s ability to recognize and recall both faces and objects.
Now a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study, to be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, has taken this a step further by finding that the thickness of the cortex in the FFA can predict a person’s ability to recognize faces and objects.
“It is the first time we have found a direct relationship between brain structure and visual expertise,” said study leader Dr. Isabel Gauthier, David K. Wilson Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. “It shows more clearly than ever that this part of the brain is relevant to both face and object recognition abilities.”
For the study, Gauthier and her co-authors, post-doctoral fellow Rankin McGugin, Ph.D., and Ana Van Gulick, Ph.D., from Carnegie Mellon University, measured the ability of 27 men to identify objects from several different categories divided into two groups: living and non-living. They also tested participants ability to recognize faces.
Using advanced brain-mapping techniques, the researchers were able to pinpoint the exact location of the FFA in each individual and to measure its cortical thickness. The findings showed that the men with thicker FFA cortex performed generally better at identifying non-living objects while those having thinner FFA cortex performed better at identifying faces and living objects.
“It was really a surprise to find that the effects are in opposite directions for faces and non-living objects,” said Gauthier. “One possibility that we are exploring is that we acquire expertise for faces much earlier than we learn about cars, and brain development is quite different earlier versus later in life.”
There are well-known gender differences in facial and object recognition, so the researchers would like to repeat the study using women to see if the connections remain the same. They would also like to begin with a group of non-experts and then track how the thickness of their FFA cortex changes as they undergo the training process to become experts.
Source: Vanderbilt University