The role of attention in face processing
Selective attention is widely regarded as a crucial component of human perception. In the visual domain, attentional mechanisms have been implicated in stimulus encoding, implicit recognition, conscious perception and goal-directed behaviour. To date, however, the role of attention in face processing has been largely overlooked. This is remarkable given the social and biological importance of faces, and the wealth of psychological research that has focused on faces as stimuli. Moreover, if we are to better understand how the human brain processes faces, then this would also require an insight into the interaction between attention and face processing. The experiments in this thesis addressed the relation of attention and face processing directly by assessing the consequences of various attentional manipulations in response-competition and repetition priming tasks. The first line of enquiry examined observers’ ability to attend selectively to facial expression and identity, and whether attention is required for the integration of these types of information into a multi-dimensional face percept. Subsequent experiments examined capacity limits in face processing and attention biases to faces and nonface comparisons. The main findings indicated that face processing is capacity limited, such that only a single face can be processed at a time, and that faces are particularly efficient at retaining and engaging visual attention in comparison to nonface objects. However, while face processing limits appear to proceed independent of a general capacity, attention biases to faces may reflect processing stages that are shared with other stimuli. These findings are discussed in relation to existing research on faces and attention.