Although it is generally acknowledged that familiar face recognition is fast, mandatory, and proceeds outside conscious control, it is still unclear whether processes leading to familiar face recognition occur in a linear (i.e., gradual) or a nonlinear (i.e., all-or-none) manner. To test these two alternative accounts, we recorded scalp ERPs while participants indicated whether they recognize as familiar the faces of famous and unfamiliar persons gradually revealed in a descending sequence of frames, from the noisier to the least noisy. This presentation procedure allowed us to characterize the changes in scalp ERP responses occurring prior to and up to overt recognition. Our main finding is that gradual and all-or-none processes are possibly involved during overt recognition of familiar faces. Although the N170 and the N250 face-sensitive responses displayed an abrupt activity change at the moment of overt recognition of famous faces, later ERPs encompassing the N400 and late positive component exhibited an incremental increase in amplitude as the point of recognition approached. In addition, famous faces that were not overtly recognized at one trial before recognition elicited larger ERP potentials than unfamiliar faces, probably reflecting a covert recognition process. Overall, these findings present evidence that recognition of familiar faces implicates spatio-temporally complex neural processes exhibiting differential pattern activity changes as a function of recognition state.

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