Move Along, Nothing New to See Here

Every now and then a study comes down the pike that is so obvious as to be laughable. Here’s the latest.

A group of researchers from Harvard’s Department of Psychology have discovered that—get ready—people identify faces by gender and race. Yup, when we look at somebody we actually notice whether they are male or female, black or white. That’s the big news from their study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

I fully understand that some research that may seem meaningless on its face (oops, no pun intended) lays a foundation for future, more profound projects, and that seemingly small findings may contribute to a broader and more useful body of knowledge. But the authors of “Multivoxel Patterns in Fusiform Face Area Differentiate Faces by Sex and Race” make no such case.

Indeed, the report’s conclusion reads, “In sum, the present experiment suggests that FFA [fusiform face area, a part of the brain that responds to faces] distinguishes faces by social categories like sex and race. In this way, the current research contributes to our emerging understanding of how the human brain perceives individuals from different social categories.”

What do you think? Might there be some deeper meaning here? Or should we all just move along and find something more intriguing?



  1. I’m pleased you did decide to comment, Juan, and thank you for your further clarifications.

    To be sure, not everyone will agree with everything written here. In the end, I hope this exchange highlights the value of translating academic concepts into language that everyone can understand.

  2. Hi, Ed. Thank you for taking the time read our study’s report; it is not an easy read without expertise in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). However, you misunderstood the purpose of our research and the significance of our results. Participants in our experiment categorized faces by sex and race, but that wasn’t the point of the study. If it had been, then why would we have bothered to have these participants in an fMRI scanner? The purpose of our work was to attempt to identify which brain region(s) contain information about the social categories of faces. As the title of our study’s report states, we found evidence that this information is encoded in neural patterns in a region of the fusiform gyrus that can be functionally-defined by its stronger response to faces than to other stimuli: the fusiform face area.

    1. Thank you for joining the discussion, Dr. Contreras. The human brain is indeed an amazing thing, and I applaud your efforts to increase our understanding of it.

      I suspect our different takes revolve around—ironically—the way our brains work. I admit to being a humanities guy rather than a scientist. So I tend to look for headlines, stories, examples, word pictures, etc., to explain matters.

      In another irony, I’ve witnessed this difference many times from the other direction. In the course of leading media training workshops for scientists, medical researchers, and the like, I’ve observed that many find it challenging to translate scientific findings into lay language. Clearly, there is value in doing so as it encourages more widespread understanding of research like yours.

      To help expand the knowledge of those of us with more of a non-scientific bent, might I ask: If you were to try to explain the essence of your study in a sentence or two to this non-scientist, how would you frame it?

      Again, my thanks for enriching the discussion by taking time to explain your research in greater depth.

      1. In one sentence: Using fMRI, we found a brain region in the visual system that may contain information about the sex and race of faces we view. For a non-technical explanation of our results, see and

        I am glad to contribute to the discussion, Ed. But I admit that I was disinclined to do so given the harsh tone of your blog post. I hope that, with an accurate understanding of our findings, you realize that this tone was unnecessary as it may foster misunderstanding of legitimate scientific work like ours. Either way, thanks for your response!

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