In free-viewing experiments, primates orient preferentially toward faces and face-like stimuli. To investigate the neural basis of this behavior, we measured the spontaneous viewing preferences of monkeys with selective bilateral amygdala lesions. The results revealed that when faces and nonface objects were presented simultaneously, monkeys with amygdala lesions had no viewing preference for either conspecific faces or illusory facial features in everyday objects. Instead of directing eye movements toward socially relevant features in natural images, we found that, after amygdala loss, monkeys are biased toward features with increased low-level salience. We conclude that the amygdala has a role in our earliest specialized response to faces, a behavior thought to be a precursor for efficient social communication and essential for the development of face-selective cortex.
Keywords: face perception; neurocircuitry; social development; spontaneous behavior; visual salience.