Inversion leads to quantitative, not qualitative, changes in face processing

Curr Biol. 2004 Mar 9;14(5):391-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2004.02.028.


Humans are remarkably adept at recognizing objects across a wide range of views. A notable exception to this general rule is that turning a face upside down makes it particularly difficult to recognize. This striking effect has prompted speculation that inversion qualitatively changes the way faces are processed. Researchers commonly assume that configural cues strongly influence the recognition of upright, but not inverted, faces. Indeed, the assumption is so well accepted that the inversion effect itself has been taken as a hallmark of qualitative processing differences. Here, we took a novel approach to understand the inversion effect. We used response classification to obtain a direct view of the perceptual strategies underlying face discrimination and to determine whether orientation effects can be explained by differential contributions of nonlinear processes. Inversion significantly impaired performance in our face discrimination task. However, surprisingly, observers utilized similar, local regions of faces for discrimination in both upright and inverted face conditions, and the relative contributions of nonlinear mechanisms to performance were similar across orientations. Our results suggest that upright and inverted face processing differ quantitatively, not qualitatively; information is extracted more efficiently from upright faces, perhaps as a by-product of orientation-dependent expertise.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology*
  • Face*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Perceptual Distortion / physiology
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*