Animate and inanimate objects elicit distinct response patterns in the human ventral temporal cortex (VTC), but the exact features driving this distinction are still poorly understood. One prominent feature that distinguishes typical animals from inanimate objects and that could potentially explain the animate-inanimate distinction in the VTC is the presence of a face. In the current fMRI study, we investigated this possibility by creating a stimulus set that included animals with faces, faceless animals, and inanimate objects, carefully matched in order to minimize other visual differences. We used both searchlight-based and ROI-based representational similarity analysis (RSA) to test whether the presence of a face explains the animate-inanimate distinction in the VTC. The searchlight analysis revealed that when animals with faces were removed from the analysis, the animate-inanimate distinction almost disappeared. The ROI-based RSA revealed a similar pattern of results, but also showed that, even in the absence of faces, information about agency (a combination of animal’s ability to move and think) is present in parts of the VTC that are sensitive to animacy. Together, these analyses showed that animals with faces do elicit a stronger animate/inanimate response in the VTC, but that this effect is driven not by faces per se, or the visual features of faces, but by other factors that correlate with face presence, such as the capacity for self-movement and thought. In short, the VTC appears to treat the face as a proxy for agency, a ubiquitous feature of familiar animals.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience