Probing the face-space of individuals with prosopagnosia

Date of Original Version




Abstract or Description

A useful framework for understanding the mental representation of facial identity is face-space (Valentine, 1991), a multi-dimensional cognitive map in which individual faces are coded relative to the average of previously encountered faces, and in which the distance among faces represents their perceived similarity. We examined whether individuals with prosopagnosia, a disorder characterized by an inability to recognize familiar faces despite normal visual acuity and intellectual abilities, evince behavior consistent with this underlying representational schema. To do so, we compared the performance of 6 individuals with congenital prosopagnosia (CP), with a group of age- and gender-matched control participants in a series of experiments involving judgments of facial identity. We used digital images of male and female faces and morphed them to varying degrees relative to an average face, to create caricatures, anti-caricatures, and anti-faces (i.e. faces of the opposite identity). Across 5 behavioral tasks, CP individuals’ performance was similar to that of the control group and consistent with the face-space framework. As a test of the sensitivity of our measures in revealing face processing abnormalities, we also tested a single acquired prosopagnosic (AP) individual, whose performance on the same tasks deviated significantly from the control and CP groups. The findings suggest that, despite an inability to recognize individual identities, CPs perceive faces in a manner consistent with norm-based coding of facial identity, although their representation is likely supported by a feature-based strategy. We suggest that the apparently normal posterior cortical regions, including the fusiform face area, serve as the neural substrate for at least a coarse, feature-based face-space map in CP and that their face recognition impairment arises from the disconnection between these regions and more anterior cortical sites.


Published In

Neuropsychologia, 48, 6, 1828-1841.