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mental health

Compelling answers are beginning to emerge from biologists and computer scientists who are gaining new insights into how the brain recognizes and processes facial data.

Long before she had heard of Diana Duyser’s grilled-cheese sandwich, Doris Tsao, a neuroscientist at the University of Bremen in Germany, had an inkling that people might process faces differently from other objects. Her suspicion was that a particular area of the brain gives faces priority, like an airline offering first-class passengers expedited boarding.

“Some patients have strokes and are then able to recognize everything perfectly well except for faces,” Dr. Tsao said. “So we started questioning whether there really might be an area in the brain that is dedicated to face recognition.”

Dr. Tsao used functional magnetic resonance imaging to record which areas of the brain were activated when macaque monkeys were presented with stimuli including fruits, gadgets, scrambled patterns — and faces. She discovered almost immediately that groups of cells in three regions of the brain’s temporal lobe seemed to be strongly attuned to faces.

“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.