Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

The Influence of Processing Objectives on the Perception of Faces: An ERP Study of Race and Gender Perception

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

The Influence of Processing Objectives on the Perception of Faces: An ERP Study of Race and Gender Perception

Article excerpt

In two experiments, event-related potentials were used to examine the effects of attentional focus on the processing of race and gender cues from faces. When faces were still the focal stimuli, the processing of the faces at a level deeper than the social category by requiring a personality judgment resulted in early attention to race and gender, with race effects as early as 120 msec. This time course corresponds closely to those in past studies in which participants explicitly attended to target race and gender (Ito & Urland, 2003). However, a similar processing goal, coupled with a more complex stimulus array, delayed social category effects until 190 msec, in accord with the effects of complexity on visual attention. In addition, the N170 typically linked with structural face encoding was modulated by target race, but not by gender, when faces were perceived in a homogenous context consisting only of faces. This suggests that when basic-level distinctions between faces and nonfaces are irrelevant, the mechanism previously associated only with structural encoding can also be sensitive to features used to differentiate among faces.

One of our most important daily activities is to make sense of the people we encounter, to infer their motives and emotions and what this implies for our well-being. In many cases, this information can be gleaned from the faces of those around us, and not surprisingly, face perception has been an active area of investigation among neuroscientists. Some of the frequently studied aspects of facial perception include the differentiation of faces from nonfaces (e.g., Bentin, Allison, Puce, Ferez, & McCarthy, 1996; Eimer, 2000; Kanwisher, McDermott, & Chun, 1997), the recognition of personal identity (e.g., Bentin & Deouell, 2000; Eimer, 2000; Huffman & Haxby, 2000), and the perception of emotion (e.g., Adolphs, Tranel, & Damasio, 1994; BaIconi & Pozzoli, 2003; Eimer, Holmes, & McGlone, 2003; Morris, Frith, & Perrett, 1996). Theoretically, it has also been recognized that information indicative of social category membership-cues related to such things as race, gender, and age-can be readily determined from faces, but this issue has received less attention among neuroscientists. Consequently, such issues as time course, relation to other aspects of face processing, and attentional influences on this process are not well understood.

Researchers who have investigated how group membership is processed have found that it can be encoded relatively easily and early in processing. MouchetantRostaing and Giard (2003) found that when perceivers viewed faces differing in gender or age, as compared with faces from a single category (e.g., all males), eventrelated potential (ERP) responses at frontal-central areas were modulated as early as 145 msec. That is, electrophysiological activity varied when a differentiation could be made between social categories (male vs. female), as compared with when the social category was the same for all the targets. This occurred both when perceivers were explicitly attending to gender or age and when social categorization was task irrelevant (see also MouchetantRostaing, Giard, Bentin, Aguera, & Pernier, 2000).

Ito and Urland (2003) found similarly early social category effects at frontal-central areas. Race affected ERP responses by about 120 msec, whereas gender effects occurred slightly later, by about 180 msec. Both effects occurred regardless of whether the participants were explicitly attending to race or gender. In addition, whereas Mouchetant-Rostaing and colleagues (MouchetantRostaing & Giard, 2003; Mouchetant-Rostaing et al., 2000) examined responses as a function of whether gender or age differentiation was possible (i.e., whether there was variability in the faces along those dimensions), Ito and Urland examined responses as a function of the specific group (i.e., how responses to Whites vs. Blacks and males vs. …

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