Multiple contributions to priming effects for familiar faces: Analyses with backward masking and event-related potentials


Peggy Dörr, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy, Charité– Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Campus Virchow-Klinikum, Augustenburger Platz 1, D-13353 Berlin, Germany (e-mail:


The model of face recognition by Bruce and Young postulates a pool of structural representations for familiar faces in long-term memory, so-called face recognition units (FRUs). Event-related brain potentials show early repetition priming effects for familiar faces around 250–300 ms [N250r or early repetition effect (ERE)], which are thought to reflect the activation of these FRUs. However, small N250r effects are also seen for unfamiliar faces suggesting that priming of perceptual codes (i.e., pictorial and structural codes) also contributes to early repetition effects. Using a face-familiarity task in Experiment 1, we aimed to eliminate these perceptual contributions to face priming by backward masking the prime face with a different, unfamiliar face. As expected, a repetition priming effect appeared only for familiar faces. Experiment 2 used a semantic-decision task and compared the effects of different kinds of masks that interfered with either pictorial codes or with pictorial and structural codes. Our findings indicate that both structural codes and memory representations contribute to the N250r and that unfamiliar-face masks interfere only with structural codes. Face-masks may therefore provide a useful tool to extract the pure contributions of memory representations (i.e., FRUs) to repetition priming.