A study using electroencephalography (EEG) has shed light on the timeline of personally relevant face processing. The research, conducted by a team at the University of Reading, reveals that personal relevance plays a significant role in face processing, sometimes even before structural face encoding occurs. The findings were published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
In our everyday lives, the faces of our friends, family, and loved ones represent critical social stimuli. Familiar faces are often recognized with ease and quickness, compared to unfamiliar faces, which tend to rely more heavily on image matching. The study aimed to explore how personal relevance and emotional facial expressions affect this process and their possible interactions.
The researchers collected 64-channel EEG data from 19 female participants, discarding one dataset due to excessive artifacts. All participants were in a heterosexual relationship at the time of data collection and had an average score of 7.66 points on the Passionate Love Scale. The participants were presented with photographs of their romantic partner, a close friend, and a stranger, each displaying fearful, happy, and neutral facial expressions.
The results of the study showed that viewing a partner’s face increased the amplitude of the P1 component just 100 milliseconds after stimulus onset, preceding the stage of structural face encoding. This suggests that even at this early stage, personal relevance plays a role in face processing. The results did not show significant effects for emotional facial expressions, indicating that personal relevance might have a more profound impact in everyday face processing.
These findings are consistent with the concept that additional mechanisms may be involved in the processing of personally familiar faces. Previous neuroimaging studies have identified an extended face network that includes regions related to reward processing, memory, self-relevance monitoring, and emotions. The time course of these effects indicates that some of these regions may enable the early amplification of personal relevance at the stage of perceptual encoding in the extrastriate visual cortex.
The study represents a significant step forward in understanding the dynamics of face processing, particularly in real-life contexts with personally relevant faces. These results could potentially pave the way for an expansion of existing face processing models. This breakthrough study has opened up a new direction of research in the cognitive sciences.