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Electrical stimulation of brain area causes strange visual illusions

October 23, 2012|By Jon Bardin
  • A new study shows that electrical stimulation of a small patch of the brain causes illusions that only affect the perception of faces.
A new study shows that electrical stimulation of a small patch of the brain… (Matt Cardy/Getty Images )

Ron Blackwell didn't enter the hospital expecting to see his doctor's face melt before his eyes. But that's exactly what happened when researchers electrically stimulated a small part of his brain, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The doctor's face did not actually melt, of course. Instead, the researchers argue, the stimulation short-circuited a brain area called the fusiform gyrus. Previous studies have linked a part of that area to face processing by showing that it becomes active when people perceive faces. But it's hard to know just how important the area is for facial processing unless you can actually change its activity level while someone views faces.

Blackwell, an epileptic, turned out to be the perfect test case. He was in Stanford's hospital so that doctors -- including the study author, Dr. Josef Parvizi -- could study his epilepsy and decide whether they could perform surgery to remove the part of the brain responsible for his seizures. As part of that procedure, Parvizi laid down a strip of electrodes on the surface of the brain. That gave him the capacity to painlessly and harmlessly stimulate the part of the brain they covered, and one of those electrodes was right over the fusiform gyrus.

Along with collaborators led by Stanford psychologist Kalanit Grill-Spector, Parvizi stimulated the area to see whether it would affect Blackwell's perception of the doctor’s face. When he performed a sham stimulation -- counting down from three and pressing a button that did nothing -- Blackwell reported no change.

But when Parvizi applied voltage, strange things suddenly began to happen to Blackwell's face perception. "You just turned into somebody else," Blackwell said in a video that was recorded as part of the experiment. "Your face metamorphosed. Your nose got saggy, went to the left. You almost looked like somebody I'd seen before, but somebody different. That was a trip." As soon as the electricity was turned off, Blackwell's visualization of Parvizi's face returned to normal.

Later, Blackwell confirmed that it was only the doctor's face that changed -- his body and hands remained the same.

Though only a single case, the experiment provides strong confirmatory evidence that the fusiform gyrus is indeed directly involved in processing face perception, and that the area is specialized for doing so.

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