Electrophysiological investigations of the timing of face processing
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As important social stimuli, faces playa critical role in our lives. Much of our interaction with other people depends on our ability to recognize faces accurately. It has been proposed that face processing consists of different stages and interacts with other systems (Bruce & Young, 1986). At a perceptual level, the initial two stages, namely structural encoding and face recognition, are particularly relevant and are the focus of this dissertation. Event-related potentials (ERPs) are averaged EEG signals time-locked to a particular event (such as the presentation of a face). With their excellent temporal resolution, ERPs can provide important timing information about neural processes. Previous research has identified several ERP components that are especially related to face processing, including the N 170, the P2 and the N250. Their nature with respect to the stages of face processing is still unclear, and is examined in Studies 1 and 2. In Study 1, participants made gender decisions on a large set of female faces interspersed with a few male faces. The ERP responses to facial characteristics of the female faces indicated that the N 170 amplitude from each side of the head was affected by information from eye region and by facial layout: the right N 170 was affected by eye color and by face width, while the left N 170 was affected by eye size and by the relation between the sizes of the top and bottom parts of a face. In contrast, the P100 and the N250 components were largely unaffected by facial characteristics. These results thus provided direct evidence for the link between the N 170 and structural encoding of faces. In Study 2, focusing on the face recognition stage, we manipulated face identity strength by morphing individual faces to an "average" face. Participants performed a face identification task. The effect of face identity strength was found on the late P2 and the N250 components: as identity strength decreased from an individual face to the "average" face, the late P2 increased and the N250 decreased. In contrast, the P100, the N170 and the early P2 components were not affected by face identity strength. These results suggest that face recognition occurs after 200 ms, but not earlier. Finally, because faces are often associated with social information, we investigated in Study 3 how group membership might affect ERP responses to faces. After participants learned in- and out-group memberships of the face stimuli based on arbitrarily assigned nationality and university affiliation, we found that the N170 latency differentiated in-group and out-group faces, taking longer to process the latter. In comparison, without group memberships, there was no difference in N170 latency among the faces. This dissertation provides evidence that at a neural level, structural encoding of faces, indexed by the N170, occurs within 200 ms. Face recognition, indexed by the late P2 and the N250, occurs shortly afterwards between 200 and 300 ms. Social cognitive factors can also influence face processing. The effect is already evident as early as 130-200 ms at the structural encoding stage.