Task-dependent enhancement of facial expression and identity representations in human cortex

Neuroimage. 2018 May 15;172:689-702. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.02.013. Epub 2018 Feb 10.


What cortical mechanisms allow humans to easily discern the expression or identity of a face? Subjects detected changes in expression or identity of a stream of dynamic faces while we measured BOLD responses from topographically and functionally defined areas throughout the visual hierarchy. Responses in dorsal areas increased during the expression task, whereas responses in ventral areas increased during the identity task, consistent with previous studies. Similar to ventral areas, early visual areas showed increased activity during the identity task. If visual responses are weighted by perceptual mechanisms according to their magnitude, these increased responses would lead to improved attentional selection of the task-appropriate facial aspect. Alternatively, increased responses could be a signature of a sensitivity enhancement mechanism that improves representations of the attended facial aspect. Consistent with the latter sensitivity enhancement mechanism, attending to expression led to enhanced decoding of exemplars of expression both in early visual and dorsal areas relative to attending identity. Similarly, decoding identity exemplars when attending to identity was improved in dorsal and ventral areas. We conclude that attending to expression or identity of dynamic faces is associated with increased selectivity in representations consistent with sensitivity enhancement.

Keywords: Attentional enhancement; Dynamic faces; Face perception; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Multivoxel pattern analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology