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VL2 2/15/12 Plaut Visual recognition of faces and words

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Dr. David Plaut, Department of Psychology and Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University and Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition

Visual recognition of faces and words: Two sides of the same brain?

Theorizing within cognitive neuroscience has increasingly moved away from a search for domain-general principles toward a view in which the brain mechanisms supporting cognition are organized into distinct modules dedicated to narrowly-defined functions. A clear case in point concerns visual recognition of faces and words, where neuroimaging observations of selective activation for faces in the fusiform face area (FFA), and for words in the visual word form area (VWFA), dovetail with classic neuropsychological findings of selective deficits in face recognition (prosopagnosia) and in word recognition (pure alexia) following damage to these areas. The current research examines and elaborates an alternative perspective---that cognitive behavior is supported, not by dedicated modules, but by highly distributed and interactive cortical networks whose organization is strongly experience-dependent. On this view, the functional specialization of brain regions is graded rather than absolute and reflects the consequences of a set of general principles and constraints on neural computation. The consequences of these principles go beyond explaining why neither pure alexia nor prosopagnosia is entirely pure, and why the FFA and VWFA show substantial responses to stimuli other than faces or words, respectively. They also lead to otherwise unexpected predictions---tested in the current work with a combination of computational, behavioral, and neuroimaging studies---concerning the partial co-mingling of face and word processing.

David C. Plaut is a Professor of Psychology and Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, with a joint appointment in the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. His primary research focus is on applying connectionist/neural network modeling to understand normal and impaired cognitive processes in the domains of reading, language, and semantics. He received a FIRST award from NIH in 1997, a Fulbright Scholarship in 2000 and a Troland Research Award from NIH in 2003. He has been an Associate Editor of Cognitive Neuropsychology and Journal of Memory and Language, has served on a number of Editorial Boards and Grant Review Panels, and has contributed to over 140 scientific publications. February 15, 2012

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