Rapid identification of a familiar face requires an image-invariant representation of person identity. A varying sample of familiar faces is necessary to disentangle image-level from person-level processing. We investigated the time course of face identity processing using a multivariate electroencephalography analysis. Participants saw ambient exemplars of celebrity faces that differed in pose, lighting, hairstyle, and so forth. A name prime preceded a face on half of the trials to preactivate person-specific information, whereas a neutral prime was used on the remaining half. This manipulation helped dissociate perceptual- and semantic-based identification. Two time intervals within the post-face onset electroencephalography epoch were sensitive to person identity. The early perceptual phase spanned 110–228 msec and was not modulated by the name prime. The late semantic phase spanned 252–1000 msec and was sensitive to person knowledge activated by the name prime. Within this late phase, the identity response occurred earlier in time (300–600 msec) for the name prime with a scalp topography similar to the FN400 ERP. This may reflect a matching of the person primed in memory with the face on the screen. Following a neutral prime, the identity response occurred later in time (500–800 msec) with a scalp topography similar to the P600f ERP. This may reflect activation of semantic knowledge associated with the identity. Our results suggest that processing of identity begins early (110 msec), with some tolerance to image-level variations, and then progresses in stages sensitive to perceptual and then to semantic features.

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