Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
It is well established that faces are processed by mechanisms that are not used with other objects. Two prominent hypotheses have been proposed to characterize how information is represented by these special mechanisms. The spacing hypothesis suggests that face-specific mechanisms primarily extract information about spacing among parts rather than information about the shape of the parts. In contrast, the holistic hypothesis suggests that faces are processed as nondecomposable wholes and, therefore, claims that both parts and spacing among them are integral aspects of face representation. Here we examined these hypotheses by testing a group of developmental prosopagnosics (DPs) who suffer from deficits in face recognition. Subjects performed a face discrimination task with faces that differed either in the spacing of the parts but not the parts (spacing task), or in the parts but not the spacing of the parts (part task). Consistent with the holistic hypothesis, DPs showed lower performance than controls on both the spacing and the part tasks, as long as salient contrast differences between the parts were minimized. Furthermore, by presenting similar spacing and part tasks with houses, we tested whether face-processing mechanisms are specific to faces, or whether they are used to process spacing information from any stimulus. DPs' normal performance on the tasks of two houses indicates that their deficit does not result from impairment in a general-purpose spacing mechanism. In summary, our data clearly support face-specific holistic hypothesis by showing that face perception mechanisms extract both part and spacing information.