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Department of Cognitive Science

Face Processing & Attention

Project Description

Of all the objects we encounter, faces are perhaps the most socially and biologically relevant. Accordingly, these stimuli hold a unique status within the human visual system, eliciting activation in specific brain regions and capturing our attention in complex visual scenes (Theewues et al).

One unique characteristic of faces is their capacity to be processed by the brain and affect human behaviour in the near-absence of attention (cf. Reddy, Wilken, & Koch, 2004; Finkbeiner & Palermo, 2009).

Our research in this area aims to further elucidate our understanding of the role attention plays in face processing, and how this varies under different conditions.

research questions

  • How do spatial and temporal attention modulate the timecourse of face processing?
  • How do spatial attention and attentional load interact? Is spatial attention more important when there are many faces for you to search?
  • Is face-processing dependant on where the face is presented in the visual field?
  • How does the effect of attention vary across the visual field?

Trial structure


To answer these questions our lab uses a novel version of the Reach-to-Touch paradigm. Subjects have to indicate their response to a target (e.g “Is it a male or female face?”) by reaching out to touch a response button on the left or right edge of the screen. The advantage of this behavioural measure is that it is capable of revealing the gradual emergence of experimental effects in stimulus processing.

Our experimental paradigms for this project incorporate aspects of masked priming, manipulations of both endogenous and exogenous attention, and visual search.


results: x-velocity as a function of target-viewing time



Project Details

PinA Investigators: Dr Matthew Finkbeiner, Genevieve Quek (PhD student)
Collaborators: Nil
Funding: Supported in part by the Australian Research Council (DP0880806)


  • Quek, G., & Finkbeiner, M. (2013). Spatial and temporal attention modulate the early stages of face processing: Behavioural evidence from a reaching paradigm. PLoS one, 8(2. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057365