Where Visual Expertise Is Located In The Brain

When we look at faces, a small part of our brain, located in the temporal lobe and called the fusiform face area, is activated. Now, the most detailed brain-mapping study of that area yet conducted has confirmed that it isn’t limited to processing faces, as some experts believed, but instead serves as a general center of expertise for visual recognition. From the Vanderbilt University website:

“In the new study published this week in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of Vanderbilt researchers report that they have recorded the activity in the FFAs of a group of automobile aficionados at extremely high resolution using one the most powerful MRI scanners available for human use and found no evidence that there is a special area devoted exclusively to facial recognition. Instead, they found that the FFA of the auto experts was filled with small, interspersed patches that respond strongly to photos of faces and autos both.

For most objects, research has shown that people use a piecemeal identification scheme that focuses on parts of the object. By contrast, experts, for faces or for cars, use a more holistic approach that is extremely fast and improves their performance in recognition tasks.

The scientists point out that visual expertise may be more the norm than the exception: ‘It helps the doctor reading X-rays, the judge looking at show dogs, the person learning to identify birds or to play chess; it even helped us when we learned brain anatomy,’ Gauthier said.” Read more here.

The account of the study doesn’t focus on this, but what struck me is, once again, how learning changes the brain—how people who are experts in automobiles actually “see” differently from people who know less about cars.

One Response to “Where Visual Expertise Is Located In The Brain”

  1. This is a great description of what makes an expert an expert. They’ve developed pattern-recognition skills that allow them to make faster, more holistic analyses in their area of expertise.

    It’s also interesting that such a holistic analysis is exactly what computers struggle to do. The hardest algorithms are ones that require holistic analysis of a pattern, something many humans can do with very little effort.

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