Event-related potentials, configural enconding, and feature-based encoding in face recognition

Melissa S. JAMES, Stuart J. JOHNSTONE, William G. HAYWARD

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


The effects of manipulating configural and feature information on the face recognition process were investigated by recording event-related potentials (ERPs) from five electrode sites (Fz, Cz, Pz, T5, T6), while 17 European subjects performed an own-race and other-race face recognition task. A series of upright faces were presented in a study phase, followed by a test phase where subjects indicated whether inverted and upright faces were studied or novel via a button press response. An inversion effect, illustrating the disruption of upright configural information, was reflected in accuracy measures and in greater lateral N2 amplitude to inverted faces, suggesting that structural encoding is harder for inverted faces. An own-race advantage was found, which may reflect the use of configural encoding for the more frequently experienced own-race faces, and feature-based encoding for the less familiar other-race faces, and was reflected in accuracy measures and ERP effects. The midline N2 was larger to configurally encoded faces (i. e., own-race and upright), possibly suggesting configural encoding involves more complex processing than feature-based encoding. An N400-like component was sensitive to feature manipulations, with greater amplitude to other-race than own-race faces and to inverted than upright faces. This effect was interpreted as reflecting increased activation of incompatible representations activated by a feature-based strategy used in processing of other-race and inverted faces. The late positive complex was sensitive to configural manipulation with larger amplitude to other-race than own-race faces, and was interpreted as reflecting the updating of an own-race norm used in face recognition, to incorporate other-race information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)275-285
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Psychophysiology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Configural encoding
  • Event-related potentials
  • Face recognition
  • Inversion
  • Late positive complex
  • N200
  • N400


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