Dynamics of trimming the content of face representations for categorization in the brain

Nicola J. Van Rijsbergen, Philippe G. Schyns

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


To understand visual cognition, it is imperative to determine when, how and with what information the human brain categorizes the visual input. Visual categorization consistently involves at least an early and a late stage: the occipitotemporal N170 event related potential related to stimulus encoding and the parietal P300 involved in perceptual decisions. Here we sought to understand how the brain globally transforms its representations of face categories from their early encoding to the later decision stage over the 400 ms time window encompassing the N170 and P300 brain events. We applied classification image techniques to the behavioral and electroencephalographic data of three observers who categorized seven facial expressions of emotion and report two main findings: (1) over the 400 ms time course, processing of facial features initially spreads bilaterally across the left and right occipito-temporal regions to dynamically converge onto the centro-parietal region; (2) concurrently, information processing gradually shifts from encoding common face features across all spatial scales (e.g., the eyes) to representing only the finer scales of the diagnostic features that are richer in useful information for behavior (e.g., the wide opened eyes in 'fear'; the detailed mouth in 'happy'). Our findings suggest that the brain refines its diagnostic representations of visual categories over the first 400 ms of processing by trimming a thorough encoding of features over the N170, to leave only the detailed information important for perceptual decisions over the P300.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1000561
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2009


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