Face blindness research wins new large-scale funding

Researchers at Birkbeck have been awarded funding to continue their study into why some people are unable to recognise faces

Researchers at Birkbeck have been awarded funding to continue their study into why some people are unable to recognise faces. The team will conduct a series of experiments with face and non-face stimuli to improve our understanding of the complex and poorly understood condition of face blindness.

The latest face blindness research will also be discussed during an open day at Birkbeck on Friday 5 October.

Face blindness

Some people are unable to recognise faces. This condition is called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, and can develop following a brain injury or in a developmental form, during infancy. People with the condition often use other visual cues, such as hair colour, gait or clothes to recognise people, but if these change they are left unable to recognise friends, colleagues and even family.

Professor Martin Eimer and his research group in the Brain and Behaviour Lab at Birkbeck have conducted behavioural tests and have studied the brain mechanisms that underlie various aspects of face processing. These have shown that all people with developmental face blindness show severe deficits in the processing of identity, but other aspects of face processing, such as the perception of face parts and face configurations or the processing of emotional facial expression, can either be intact or impaired, suggesting that face blindness can be caused by impairments at different stages of the face processing mechanism.

Understanding face processing

The research team has now been awarded significant funding by the Economic and Social Research Council to investigate more precisely how face perception differs between people with developmental face blindness and people with intact face processing. The team will conduct a series of experiments with face and non-face stimuli that are specifically designed to engage different aspects of face processing, to find out which processes operate normally and which are impaired in people with developmental face blindness. They will also study whether people with developmental face blindness and non-impaired people look at faces differently, and whether they use different parts of a face when trying to identify it.

Professor Eimer said:  “Finding out which aspects of face perception work well and which are impaired in people with developmental face blindness will have important implications for our understanding of the mechanisms that underlie face perception in people with intact face processing abilities. It will also greatly expand our knowledge of why some people have severe deficits in face recognition. Such deficits can have an enormous impact on their social lives. Many have difficulty maintaining friendships due to perceived snubs and their recognition difficulties at work can be extremely troubling.”

Face blindness open day

On Friday 5 October the team will be holding the second annual prosopagnosia open day to increase dialogue between scientists studying this condition and those who have the condition. The day will include presentations from scientists on their latest findings, and a talk from an artist with developmental face blindness about some of her work which represents what it’s like to be faceblind. From 3pm the sessions will be open to the public.