The neural processing of familiar and unfamiliar faces: a review and synopsis

Br J Psychol. 2011 Nov;102(4):726-47. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02053.x. Epub 2011 Jul 25.


Familiar faces are represented with rich visual, semantic, and emotional codes that support nearly effortless perception and recognition of these faces. Unfamiliar faces pose a greater challenge to human perception and memory systems. The established behavioural disparities for familiar and unfamiliar faces undoubtedly stem from differences in the quality and nature of their underlying neural representations. In this review, our goal is to characterize what is known about the neural pathways that respond to familiar and unfamiliar faces using data from functional neuroimaging studies. We divide our presentation by type of familiarity (famous, personal, and visual familiarity) to consider the distinct neural underpinnings of each. We conclude with a description of a recent model of person information proposed by Gobbini and Haxby (2007) and a list of open questions and promising directions for future research.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Face
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*