The range of specificity and the response properties of the extrastriate face area were investigated by comparing the N170 event-related potential (ERP) component elicited by photographs of natural faces, realistically painted portraits, sketches of faces, schematic faces, and by nonface meaningful and meaningless visual stimuli. Results showed that the N170 distinguished between faces and nonface stimuli when the concept of a face was clearly rendered by the visual stimulus, but it did not distinguish among different face types: Even a schematic face made from simple line fragments triggered the N170. However, in a second experiment, inversion seemed to have a different effect on natural faces in which face components were available and on the pure gestalt-based schematic faces: The N170 amplitude was enhanced when natural faces were presented upside down but reduded when schematic faces were inverted. Inversion delayed the N170 peak latency for both natural and schematic faces. Together, these results suggest that early face processing in the human brain is subserved by a multiple-component neural system in which both whole-face configurations and face parts are processed. The relative involvement of the two perceptual processes is probably determined by whether the physiognomic value of the stimuli depends upon holistic configuration, or whether the individual components can be associated with faces even when presented outside the face context.
Present address: University of California, Berkeley.