February 25, 2021

Rapid neural categorization of facelike objects predicts the perceptual awareness of a face (face pareidolia)

The human brain rapidly and automatically categorizes faces vs. other visual objects. However, whether face-selective neural activity predicts the subjective experience of a face – perceptual awareness – is debated. To clarify this issue, here we use face pareidolia, i.e., the illusory perception of a face, as a proxy to relate the neural categorization of a variety of facelike objects to conscious face perception. In Experiment 1, scalp electroencephalogram (EEG) is recorded while pictures of human faces or facelike objects – in different stimulation sequences – are interleaved every second (i.e., at 1 Hz) in a rapid 6-Hz train of natural images of nonface objects. Participants do not perform any explicit face categorization task during stimulation, and report whether they perceived illusory faces post-stimulation. A robust categorization response to facelike objects is identified at 1 Hz and harmonics in the EEG frequency spectrum with a facelike occipito-temporal topography. Across all individuals, the facelike categorization response is of about 20% of the response to human faces, but more strongly right-lateralized. Critically, its amplitude is much larger in participants who report having perceived illusory faces. In Experiment 2, facelike or matched nonface objects from the same categories appear at 1 Hz in sequences of nonface objects presented at variable stimulation rates (60 Hz to 12 Hz) and participants explicitly report after each sequence whether they perceived illusory faces. The facelike categorization response already emerges at the shortest stimulus duration (i.e., 17 ms at 60 Hz) and predicts the behavioral report of conscious perception. Strikingly, neural facelike-selectivity emerges exclusively when participants report illusory faces. Collectively, these experiments characterize a neural signature of face pareidolia in the context of rapid categorization, supporting the view that face-selective brain activity reliably predicts the subjective experience of a face from a single glance at a variety of stimuli.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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