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Keywords:

  • ERP ;
  • face processing;
  • human;
  • neurobiological development;
  • spatial scales

Abstract

Face perception in adults depends on skilled processing of interattribute distances (‘configural’ processing), which is disrupted for faces presented in inverted orientation (face inversion effect or FIE). Children are not proficient in configural processing, and this might relate to an underlying immaturity to use facial information in low spatial frequency (SF) ranges, which capture the coarse information needed for configural processing. We hypothesized that during adolescence a shift from use of high to low SF information takes place. Therefore, we studied the influence of SF content on neural face processing in groups of children (9–10 years), adolescents (14–15 years) and young adults (21–29 years) by measuring event-related potentials (ERPs) to upright and inverted faces which varied in SF content. Results revealed that children show a neural FIE in early processing stages (i.e. P1; generated in early visual areas), suggesting a superficial, global facial analysis. In contrast, ERPs of adults revealed an FIE at later processing stages (i.e. N170; generated in face-selective, higher visual areas). Interestingly, adolescents showed FIEs in both processing stages, suggesting a hybrid developmental stage. Furthermore, adolescents and adults showed FIEs for stimuli containing low SF information, whereas such effects were driven by both low and high SF information in children. These results indicate that face processing has a protracted maturational course into adolescence, and is dependent on changes in SF processing. During adolescence, sensitivity to configural cues is developed, which aids the fast and holistic processing that is so special for faces.