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UBC researchers are studying brain damage that causes “face blindness” which in severe cases means individuals can’t recognize their own reflection - photo by Martin Dee
UBC researchers are studying brain damage that causes “face blindness” which in severe cases means individuals can’t recognize their own reflection - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 10 | Oct. 4, 2007

Blind to Beauty

Researchers Look at a Rare Condition to Find Out How and Where We Process Attractiveness

By Hilary Thomson

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but according to research conducted by a UBC medical student, eye candy fails to find a sweet tooth in patients with a rare disorder.

Chris Waite, a third-year med student, has studied how patients with prosopagnosia -- the inability to recognize familiar faces, even family members, because of brain injury -- perceive facial attractiveness. The findings may provide another assessment tool to help clinicians localize areas of brain damage.

“We don’t know a tenth of what goes on the brain,” says the 26-year-old. “Face perception is a highly complex visual skill. Exploring how the brain processes judgments about facial beauty help us identify the role of various regions of the brain.”

Waite worked with UBC prof Jason Barton, Canada Research Chair in the Neuropsychology of Vision and Eye Movements, and investigators from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study was the first of its kind and earned Waite the American Academy of Neurology Award for best medical student essay.

The research team studied eight individuals with prosopagnosia, an impairment also known as of face-blindness. They wanted to know where the brain processes visual information that adds up to a judgment about facial attractiveness.

Individuals with prosopagnosia have trouble extracting and integrating information they see in a face and rely on other characteristics, such as hair, body shape and gait to recognize people. The condition can result from trauma to the head, illness such as encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, stroke, coma or insufficient oxygen supply at birth. In 2006, a web survey of 1,600 people conducted jointly by a team from Harvard and University College London suggested that up to two per cent of people have some degree of face-blindness.

The damaged area of the brain for those with face-blindness is usually found in the medial side of the occipital (low back of the brain, near the spinal cord) and temporal, or side lobes. The region is called the fusiform face area. Because attractiveness depends on non-changing elements of facial structure -- which in Western society include a strong jaw, big eyes and a straight nose -- it was thought that attractiveness might be processed in this area.

However, because attractiveness is a social signal that helps us judge personality or mating potential, scientists believed it might be processed in a region of the brain that “reads” changing facial properties, an area called the superior temporal sulcus that is located at the tops of the temporal lobes. Although prosopagnosia patients cannot identify faces, they can judge subtle facial clues, such as a raised eyebrow or pursed lips that express emotion and convey social cues.
The investigators’ wanted to determine if recognizing facial beauty took place in the region that supports identification (fusiform face) or the one supporting social signals (superior temporal sulcus).

The research subjects, heterosexual men and women prosopagnosics ranging in age from 20s to 60s, were shown 80 anonymous male and female faces, both average and attractive, and asked to rate their attractiveness. A second test involved viewing a series of similar images while researchers timed how long participants looked at each image. A control group of 19 provided comparison data. Prosopagnosics also looked at famous beautiful faces to further test the relationship between ability to identify familiar faces and ability to judge beauty.

Both tasks showed that the same damage that prevented them from identifying faces impaired prosopagnosics in processing facial attractiveness. They rated the attractiveness of beautiful faces only slightly higher than average faces.  Also, they were much more willing than the control group to continue looking at images of average faces.

The researchers concluded that processing facial attractiveness must use the same neural pathways -- those found in the fusiform region of the brain -- used to process identity.

“While the beauty of a face might seem a more fitting topic for an artist, this work helps settle a debate by showing that areas that code the identity of a face also play a key role in the perception of beauty. It helps us understand the contributions of different ‘modules’ of the brain to human experience,” says Barton, an investigator at the Brain Research Centre at UBC Hospital and a member of the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI).

Although Waite feels fortunate to have conducted research with eminent neuroscientists, his heart still belongs to medicine and vision science in particular, influenced in part by his mother who is an optician.

“I think vision is the most important sense,” he says. “If I could fix something to make a patient’s life better, that would be a great feeling. That’s what I want to do.”

Once he completes his undergraduate degree in medicine, Waite is considering a residency in ophthalmology, among other options.

Funding for the study was provided by the American Academy of Neurology and the UBC Dept. of Ophthalmology Thomas Dohm Scholarship.

The Brain Research Centre at Vancouver Hospital, a partnership between VCHRI and UBC’s Faculty of Medicine, has more than 200 investigators with broad, multi-disciplinary research expertise to advance knowledge of the brain and to explore new discoveries and technologies that have the potential to reduce the suffering and cost associated with disease and injuries of the brain.

VCHRI is the research body of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. In academic partnership with UBC, the institute advances health research and innovation across B.C., Canada, and beyond.

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Last reviewed 03-Oct-2007

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