Foveal input is not required for perception of crowd facial expression

J Vis. 2015;15(4):11. doi: 10.1167/15.4.11.


The visual system extracts average features from groups of objects (Ariely, 2001; Dakin & Watt, 1997; Watamaniuk & Sekuler, 1992), including high-level stimuli such as faces (Haberman & Whitney, 2007, 2009). This phenomenon, known as ensemble perception, implies a covert process, which would not require fixation of individual stimulus elements. However, some evidence suggests that ensemble perception may instead be a process of averaging foveal input across sequential fixations (Ji, Chen, & Fu, 2013; Jung, Bulthoff, Thornton, Lee, & Armann, 2013). To test directly whether foveating objects is necessary, we measured observers' sensitivity to average facial emotion in the absence of foveal input. Subjects viewed arrays of 24 faces, either in the presence or absence of a gaze-contingent foveal occluder, and adjusted a test face to match the average expression of the array. We found no difference in accuracy between the occluded and non-occluded conditions, demonstrating that foveal input is not required for ensemble perception. Unsurprisingly, without foveal input, subjects spent significantly less time directly fixating faces, but this did not translate into any difference in sensitivity to ensemble expression. Next, we varied the number of faces visible from the set to test whether subjects average multiple faces from the crowd. In both conditions, subjects' performance improved as more faces were presented, indicating that subjects integrated information from multiple faces in the display regardless of whether they had access to foveal information. Our results demonstrate that ensemble perception can be a covert process, not requiring access to direct foveal information.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Emotions* / physiology
  • Eye Movements / physiology
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Fovea Centralis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Visual Fields / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*