Recognizing a familiar face rapidly is a fundamental human brain function. Here we used scalp EEG to determine the minimal time needed to classify a face as personally familiar or unfamiliar. Go (familiar) and no-go (unfamiliar) responses elicited clear differential waveforms from 210 msec onward, this difference being first observed at right occipito-temporal electrode sites. Similar but delayed (by about 40 msec) responses were observed when go response were required to the unfamiliar rather than familiar faces, in a second group of participants. In both groups, a small increase of amplitude was also observed on the right hemisphere N170 face-sensitive component for familiar faces. However, unlike the post-200 msec differential go/no-go effect, this effect was unrelated to behavior and disappeared with repetition of unfamiliar faces. These observations indicate that accumulation of evidence within the first 200 msec poststimulus onset is sufficient for the human brain to decide whether a person is familiar based on his or her face, a time frame that puts strong constraints on the time course of face processing.

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