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Recognizing Our Own

Study shows more brain activity with faces of same race

THURSDAY, July 26, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Although scientists know your brain is better at recognizing the faces of people of your own race, a new study pinpoints the place in your brain that may be involved in that phenomenon.

Stanford University scientists say that brain area is called the fusiform face, and it shows greater activity when you view faces from your own racial background. The findings appear in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Previous studies have linked that brain structure to face recognition; however, this is the first study to suggest it's involved in what's known as the same-race advantage, meaning people better recognize faces racially similar to their own.

Lead study author Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a social psychologist, says she was interested in how human knowledge and race affect visual perception and attention.

She says while previous research looked into how the brain perceives faces or the same-race advantage phenomenon, no one had combined the two elements in one study.

"It's one of the first pieces that's uncovered brain activation differences as a function of social factors, like race," says Eberhardt.

Eberhardt and her colleagues examined 10 white men and 10 black men, ages 18 to 30, with a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) to watch blood-flow changes in the brain, a sign of mental activity.

While in the scanner, each man was shown a random series of color photographs of 42 white men, 42 black men and 42 antique radios. The men were told to remember the images for a memory test that would follow.

During the memory test, each man was shown images of 12 white men, 12 black men and 12 radios and asked which ones they remembered seeing. Half the images had not been shown before.

Eberhardt says while all the men showed an equal ability at remembering the antique radios, both the white and the black men were better at remembering faces from their own racial background.

But she says the critical discovery was that the fMRI scans revealed more activity in the fusiform face area when the men viewed faces of their own race.

"Those … findings are the first to demonstrate a neural basis for the race effect," says Eberhardt.

"The fusiform face region can be defined individually for each subject," she says. "Some subjects will show it only on the right, and some subjects will show it only on the left, although there are fewer subjects that will show it only on their left." And some people show simultaneous activation in both the right and left regions, she says.

The researchers don't understand exactly how the increased activity relates to recognition, but they say it may mean faces from the observer's own race are processed more effectively than those from other races.

Elizabeth A. Phelps, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, in New York City, says the study opens a brand new area of research.

"No one's ever looked at social groups as a variable with the fusiform face area, and it does suggest that we get these subtle variations due to race," she says. "This brain region seems to be involved in helping us make the really fine distinctions that we need to make to recognize faces. That is evolutionarily important."

"Faces, if you think about it, don't vary all that much. You always have the nose, the eyes and the mouth in the same place; yet we're pretty good at telling very subtle differences between faces. It's that really fine-grained analysis that this brain region seems to be involved in. That's something we need. … To recognize individual faces is very important just in terms of survival," she says.

Eberhardt says she hopes to look at the same issue in several cultures to find out if there are differences between populations exposed to many races and cultures exposed to fewer racial groups.

What To Do

You can find images of the fusiform face area from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

You can also visit the Human Face Web site at BBC Online or check the Perception Laboratory at the University of St. Andrews and participate in an online experiment.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., and Elizabeth A. Phelps, Ph.D., associate professor and laboratory director, Department of Psychology, New York University, New York City; August 2001 Nature Neuroscience
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