Emergence of categorical face perception after extended early-onset blindness [Psychological and Cognitive Sciences]
It is unknown whether the ability to visually distinguish between faces and nonfaces is subject to a critical period during development. Would a congenitally blind child who gains sight several years after birth be able to acquire this skill? This question has remained unanswered because of the rarity of cases of late sight onset. We had the opportunity to work with five early-blind individuals who gained sight late in childhood after treatment for dense bilateral cataracts. We tested their ability to categorize patterns as faces, using natural images that spanned a spectrum of face semblance. The results show that newly sighted individuals are unable to distinguish between faces and nonfaces immediately after sight onset, but improve markedly in the following months. These results demonstrate preserved plasticity for acquiring face/nonface categorization ability even late in life, and set the stage for investigating the informational and neural basis of this skill acquisition.
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