The neural speed of familiar face recognition

Neuropsychologia. 2015 Aug;75:390-401. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.06.017. Epub 2015 Jun 19.


Rapidly recognizing familiar people from their faces appears critical for social interactions (e.g., to differentiate friend from foe). However, the actual speed at which the human brain can distinguish familiar from unknown faces still remains debated. In particular, it is not clear whether familiarity can be extracted from rapid face individualization or if it requires additional time consuming processing. We recorded scalp EEG activity in 28 subjects performing a go/no-go, famous/non-famous, unrepeated, face recognition task. Speed constraints were used to encourage subjects to use the earliest familiarity information available. Event related potential (ERP) analyses show that both the N170 and the N250 components were modulated by familiarity. The N170 modulation was related to behaviour: subjects presenting the strongest N170 modulation were also faster but less accurate than those who only showed weak N170 modulation. A complementary Multi-Variate Pattern Analysis (MVPA) confirmed ERP results and provided some more insights into the dynamics of face recognition as the N170 differential effect appeared to be related to a first transitory phase (transitory bump of decoding power) starting at around 140 ms, which returned to baseline afterwards. This bump of activity was henceforth followed by an increase of decoding power starting around 200 ms after stimulus onset. Overall, our results suggest that rather than a simple single-process, familiarity for faces may rely on a cascade of neural processes, including a coarse and fast stage starting at 140 ms and a more refined but slower stage occurring after 200 ms.

Keywords: ERP, explicit famous face recognition; Familiarity; MVPA; N170; N250.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult