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PloS One


Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences


The visual system is tuned for rapid detection of faces, with the fastest choice saccade to a face at 100ms. Familiar faces have a more robust representation than do unfamiliar faces, and are detected faster in the absence of awareness and with reduced attentional resources. Faces of family and close friends become familiar over a protracted period involving learning the unique visual appearance, including a view-invariant representation, as well as person knowledge. We investigated the effect of personal familiarity on the earliest stages of face processing by using a saccadic-choice task to measure how fast familiar face detection can happen. Subjects made correct and reliable saccades to familiar faces when unfamiliar faces were distractors at 180ms — very rapid saccades that are 30 to 70ms earlier than the earliest evoked potential modulated by familiarity. By contrast, accuracy of saccades to unfamiliar faces with familiar faces as distractors did not exceed chance. Saccades to faces with object distractors were even faster (110 to 120 ms) and equivalent for familiar and unfamiliar faces, indicating that familiarity does not affect ultra-rapid saccades. We propose that detectors of diagnostic facial features for familiar faces develop in visual cortices through learning and allow rapid detection that precedes explicit recognition of identity.