Fusiform face area: vi­sion, peas and spin­dles

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - General Appointments -

What is it? Our brain has a com­plex sys­tem that pro­cesses vis­ual in­for­ma­tion. The fusiform face area is part of that vis­ual pro­cess­ing sys­tem and spe­cialises in the recog­ni­tion of peo­ple’s faces. Why is it needed? We of­ten as­sume that peo­ple’s faces are very dif­fer­ent from one an­other. But sta­tis­ti­cally, that is not so; by and large all our faces fol­low the same pat­tern — we all have com­mon fea­tures, such as eyes, a nose, a mouth and ears, that are all in the same place. The fa­cial dif­fer­ences that make ev­ery per­son that has ever lived unique are re­ally very small in­deed, which is why we need a spe­cial face recog­ni­tion ap­pa­ra­tus. Ex­perts ar­gue about the ex­tent to which this area is spe­cific to hu­man face recog­ni­tion, be­cause re­search has shown it may be in­volved with pro­cess­ing other types of com­plex pat­terns. Where is it? It’s a pea-sized area in the brain’s tem­po­ral lobe, which is one of the four lobes that make up each brain hemi­sphere (side). We have one in each hemi­sphere, though it is of­ten larger on the right. Why the name? Fusiform is from the Latin word fusus, mean­ing spin­dle. A spin­dle neu­ron is a spe­cial type of nerve cell. What can hap­pen when it is dam­aged? Dam­age to this part of the brain can cause some­thing called prosopag­nosia, also called face blind­ness. Peo­ple with this prob­lem may rely on non-fa­cial in­for­ma­tion such as hair, cloth­ing and voice to dis­tin­guish be­tween peo­ple, even close rel­a­tives.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Nathalie Gar­cia

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