The ability to recognize faces accurately and rapidly is an evolutionarily adaptive process. Most studies examining the neural correlates of face perception in adult humans have focused on a distributed cortical network of face-selective regions. There is, however, robust evidence from phylogenetic and ontogenetic studies that implicates subcortical structures, and recently, some investigations in adult humans indicate subcortical correlates of face perception as well. The questions addressed here are whether low-level subcortical mechanisms for face perception (in the absence of changes in expression) are conserved in human adults, and if so, what is the nature of these subcortical representations. In a series of four experiments, we presented pairs of images to the same or different eyes. Participants' performance demonstrated that subcortical mechanisms, indexed by monocular portions of the visual system, play a functional role in face perception. These mechanisms are sensitive to face-like configurations and afford a coarse representation of a face, comprised of primarily low spatial frequency information, which suffices for matching faces but not for more complex aspects of face perception such as sex differentiation. Importantly, these subcortical mechanisms are not implicated in the perception of other visual stimuli, such as cars or letter strings. These findings suggest a conservation of phylogenetically and ontogenetically lower-order systems in adult human face perception. The involvement of subcortical structures in face recognition provokes a reconsideration of current theories of face perception, which are reliant on cortical level processing, inasmuch as it bolsters the cross-species continuity of the biological system for face recognition.

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