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Effect on learning

“The first day we put the electrode in, it was shocking,” Dr. Tsao said. “Cell after cell responded to faces but not at all to other objects.” Her results were published in October in the journal Science.

Dr. Tsao’s investigation yielded a surprising related finding: areas of the brain she had identified as face-specific occasionally lighted up in response to objects that bore only a passing resemblance to faces.

“Nonface objects may have certain features that are weakly triggering these face cells,” she said. “If you go above a certain threshold, the monkeys might think that they’re seeing a face.” In the same way, she said, objects like cinnamon buns, rocky outcroppings and cloud formations may set off face radar if they bear enough resemblance to actual faces.

Pawan Sinha, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has devoted years of research to figuring out just what attributes touch off these face-specific pings. Security software that is being developed for identifying potential terrorists or detecting intruders must be able to reliably recognize faces. In teaching the software to do this, Dr. Sinha and his colleagues have arrived at unexpected insights into the question of why we sometimes see a cinnamon bun as a cinnamon bun, and other times as the earthly incarnation of a sainted nun.