Early identity recognition of familiar faces is not dependent on holistic processing

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It is widely accepted that holistic processing is critical for early face recognition, but recent work has suggested a larger role for feature-based processing. The earliest step in familiar face recognition is thought to be matching a perceptual representation of a familiar face to a stored representation of that face, which is thought to be indexed by the N250r event-related potential (ERP). In the current face-priming studies, we investigated whether this perceptual representation can be effectively activated by feature-based processing. In the first experiment, prime images were familiar whole faces, isolated eyes or isolated mouths. Whole faces and isolated eyes, but not isolated mouths, effectively modulated the N250r. In the second experiment, prime images were familiar whole faces presented either upright or inverted. Inverted face primes were no less effective than upright face primes in modulating the N250r. Together, the results of these studies indicate that activation of the earliest face recognition processes is not dependent on holistic processing of a typically configured face. Rather, feature-based processing can effectively activate the perceptual memory of a familiar face. However, not all features are effective primes as we found eyes, but not mouths, were effective in activating early face recognition.

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