2007: Kanwisher


“Faces are among the most important stimuli we ever perceive because they are loaded with biologically important information critical to our survival,” said Nancy Kanwisher, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kanwisher’s research has demonstrated the remarkable specificity of the parts of the brain activated during facial perception and in response to visually present words. She also discovered specialized regions of the brain that are likewise activated during the perception of places and body parts.

In honor of these seminal findings in vision and brain research, Kanwisher was named the recipient of the 2007 Golden Brain Award by the Berkeley, California-based Minerva Foundation. The award was presented to Kanwisher in a private ceremony Saturday, November 3 during the 37th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience held in San Diego, California.

“We have enlarged our current understanding of how the brain handles complex visual stimuli from work done by Nancy Kanwisher,” said the late Elwin Marg, professor emeritus of vision sciences at the University of California Berkeley and co-founder of the Minerva Foundation. For centuries, scientists have argued over whether the brain utilizes specialized regions to process important information or whether it uses generalized machinery for all information processing. “We now have added evidence to support the specialization theory of how the brain handles complex processes such as facial perception,” Marg said.

Kanwisher has an international reputation for “cutting-edge” research, said Patrick Cavanagh of the Vision Sciences Lab at Harvard University and the Laboratoire de Psychologie de la Perception at the Université Paris Descartes. “Science is especially great when Nancy powers us through some new insight, taking us along, breathless,” Cavanagh said.

Kanwisher’s research involves using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brains of subjects as they view photos of faces, places and other visual stimuli. She and her colleagues look for areas of the brain that are activated by these images. “We want to know how these specialized locations get wired up during in development and how these regions of the brains actually work,” said Kanwisher, who is also and an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. She is also interested in why the brain uses specialized regions for some visual processing tasks and not others.

Future advances in the field, Kanwisher said, will require cross-disciplinary collaborations. “A lot of people are working on this, from neurophysiology to computation to behavior. That’s what we need,” she said.