In humans, the N170 event-related potential (ERP) is an integrated measure of cortical activity that varies in amplitude and latency across trials. Researchers often conjecture that N170 variations reflect cortical mechanisms of stimulus coding for recognition. Here, to settle the conjecture and understand cortical information processing mechanisms, we unraveled the coding function of N170 latency and amplitude variations in possibly the simplest socially important natural visual task: face detection. On each experimental trial, 16 observers saw face and noise pictures sparsely sampled with small Gaussian apertures. Reversecorrelation methods coupled with information theory revealed that the presence of the eye specifically covaries with behavioral and neural measurements: the left eye strongly modulates reaction times and lateral electrodes represent mainly the presence of the contralateral eye during the rising part of the N170, with maximum sensitivity before the N170 peak. Furthermore, single-trial N170 latencies code more about the presence of the contralateral eye than N170 amplitudes and early latencies are associated with faster reaction times. The absence of these effects in control images that did not contain a face refutes alternative accounts based on retinal biases or allocation of attention to the eye location on the face. We conclude that the rising part of the N170, roughly 120-170 ms post-stimulus, is a critical time-window in human face processing mechanisms, reflecting predominantly, in a face detection task, the encoding of a single feature: the contralateral eye.
- Face detection