Unlike most objects, faces are processed holistically: They are processed as a whole rather than as a collection of independent features. We examined the role of early visual experience in the development of this type of processing of faces by using the composite-face task, a measure of holistic processing, to test patients deprived of visual experience during infancy. Visually normal control subjects showed the expected composite-face effect: They had difficulty perceiving that the top halves of two faces were the same when the top halves were aligned with different bottom halves. Performance improved when holistic processing was disrupted by misaligning the top and bottom halves. Deprived patients, in contrast, showed no evidence of holistic processing, and in fact performed significantly better than control subjects when top and bottom halves were aligned. These findings suggest that early visual experience is necessary to set up or maintain the neural substrate that leads to holistic processing of faces.
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