There’s a Map of Your Face in Other People's Brains

A new report describes the phenomenon of faciotopy, or facial mapping, which allows us to recognise other people.

Kate Horowitz
22 . 01 . 16

Don’t get too creeped out, but there are a whole lot of people walking around right now with a map of your face in their brains. But at least it’s a two-way street—you have their faces mapped in yours, too. That’s the conclusion of a recent report published in the journal Cortex.

Social animals depend on being able to recognise one another. All monkeys might look the same to you, but you can be sure that they can tell each other apart. The same is true for humans. The ability to identify another person is a vital part of social interaction, which is an essential part of our lives. 

For that reason, our brains seem to devote a lot of real estate to facial recognition. Scientists believe that most of the work of facial perception happens in two brain sections: the occipital face area (OFA) and the fusiform face area (FFA). But it wasn’t clear how those regions managed recognition. 

One group of researchers believes they’ve found out. The new report describes a phenomenon the authors call “faciotopy,” or face mapping.

Mapping is nothing new for our brains. Each part of your body is represented in miniature on the outer layer of your brain. The arrangement of the body parts in your brain mirrors their actual arrangement in your body, a representation known as the cortical homunculus.   

The authors say faciotopy acts the same way, by etching a little version of a person’s face on your OFA and FFA. They concluded this after an experiment in which they showed people pictures of mouths, noses, and other facial features while scanning their brains. The scans revealed a lot of activity in one specific area of the OFA, and some activity in another section of the FFA. The layout of these regions seemed to mirror the arrangement of features on a human face. 

If the researchers are correct, they have found the first mapping action in the brain that relates to the external world.

Lead author Linda Henriksson was not surprised by her team’s findings. “Facial recognition is so fundamental to human behaviour that it makes sense that there would be a specialised area of the brain that maps features of the face,” she told New Scientist.