My brother is like Rain Man when it comes to cars. He can see a car for a split second and know the make, model, year, and pop out a little historical tid bit about it. I’ve always wondered how he can be that good. Is it his experience in the car industry? Is he just that much smarter than me? Well, the answer may lie in his Fusiform gyrus.
See, faces have a special place in the human brain. Statistically, all faces are remarkably similar, with only very slight differences in the dimensions and shape. It should be difficult for us to tell each other apart, but our brains have evolved a special section devoted totally to facial recognition called the Fusiform gyrus. In fact, there’s a disorder called Prosopagnosia, where the Fusiform gyrus is either damaged or doesn’t work properly, and the unfortunate people with that disorder simply can’t tell other humans apart by their faces. Essentially, they see human faces “normally”, while most of us have an enhanced ability to recognize faces because of our special brains bits.
Ok, what does all this science business have to do with cars, right? Well according to the journal Nature Neuroscience, car experts like my brother perceive automobiles just like most of us perceive faces, with their fusiform gyrus.
In the study, Isabel Gauthier of Vanderbilt University and her colleagues designed an experiment to try figure out exactly whats going on with car experts. The scientists recruited 20 car experts and 20 car novices and showed them alternating images of automobiles and faces while monitoring their brain activity. The researchers asked the subjects to compare each face with the previously shown face, and each car with the previous car, to ensure that they were looking at a face while thinking about a vehicle and vice versa. The team found that the most car-savvy individuals recognized the cars as a whole, but their ability to process faces declined as a result. Vehicle newbies, in contrast, used the slower bit-by-bit approach to categorize cars but saw no decrease in their ability to process faces. Gauthier says that these finding suggest that auto experts are using the same neural circuitry for both faces and cars.