Increased response to facial attractiveness in visual areas reflects saliency, not reward
Franziska Hartung1, Anja Jamrozik, Geoffrey Aguerri1, Miriam Esther Rosen1, David B. Sarwer2, Anjan Chatterjee1; 1University of Pennsylvania, 2Temple University
Attractive faces are found to evoke larger neural responses within ventral occipito-temporal cortical areas (such as the fusiform face area) as compared to faces of average attractiveness. Whether this activity represents reward or saliency is unclear. We addressed this question by measuring neural responses to photographs of people taken before and after surgical treatment of facial disfigurement. While undergoing fMRI, participants (N=34) viewed pre and post-treatment faces. During 168 acquisitions of 5 mins 36 secs, pre and post treatment faces were presented randomly interleaved (6 seconds per face). Only the pre or post treatment image of any particular face was presented to a participant, with this assignment randomized across participants. Participants indicated by button press for each stimulus if the photograph depicted a male or female face. We found that images of facial disfigurement, as compared to images of the same faces after surgical treatment, evoked significantly greater neural responses within ventral occipito-temporal cortex, consistent with the hypothesis that face processing areas respond automatically to the salience of faces, rather than attractiveness per se. A relative decrease in neural response to disfigured faces was found in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with social cognition. We speculate that this response reflects inhibition of mentalizing and emotional processing. Given the behavioral finding that people with facial disfigurement are perceived to have less positive personality characteristics we plan to investigate if the suppression of medial prefrontal cortex represents a neural marker of mechanisms underlying the dehumanization of people with disfigured faces.
Topic Area: EMOTION & SOCIAL: Person perception