Art, Vision and the Brain: Autism and Face Processing (2016-2017)


Faces play an important role in social interactions from birth. Newborn infants prefer to look at faces and “face-like” images, and there are specific areas of the brain that respond maximally to faces and facial features. Notably, nonhuman primates also attend to faces, discriminate individual identity and social status and follow the gaze of others—just like typically-developing humans—and do so using the same brain circuits. Face processing is thus an evolutionarily conserved and highly adaptive faculty necessary for complex social behavior. When this system does not function properly, as in prosopagnosia or autism, the consequences can be severe.

Project Description

This project team will use artistic depictions of faces and face-like configurations to understand more about how global and local features contribute to how we see others, how these processes unfold over time and with experience, how they are impacted in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how this might inform clinical diagnosis and assessment of response to therapy and treatment. We will engage in eye tracking experiments that will determine whether there are common patterns of fixations in neurotypical adult observers for different artistic representations of faces and how these are similar or different to the fixations patterns in adults with ASD. Ultimately, our team will use art to uncover how the brain makes sense of our visual and social worlds, and why our brains respond the way they do to particular kinds of art.

Many individuals with ASD and related neurodevelopmental disorders are highly visual and creatively expressive. As part of our project, the team will collaborate with the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development and the Nasher Museum to design a new program to bring children with ASD and their families and caregivers to the Nasher for creative and communal programming and small group tours tailored to these families. The team will also organize a seminar, workshop or guest lecture with an artist or scholar on the autism spectrum to provide insight into their visual and creative experiences.

One of the most prominent national programs bringing children with autism and their families to an art museum is led by the Dallas Museum of Art. The project team traveled to Dallas in early October 2016 to meet with experienced educators to learn about their program, lessons learned and best practices.

Anticipated Outcomes

1) New preliminary research findings suitable for publication, conference presentations and grant proposals for external funding; new assays for diagnosis and evaluation; new appreciation for potential uniquely human features of perception and social cognition; 2) a proposal for new programs such as gallery tours, art-making activities and family experiences for visitors with autism and their families and caretakers at Nasher Museum of Art; 3) a seminar, workshop or lecture by an artist or scholar relevant to the project


Summer 2016 (July 5 – August 12) – Spring 2017

Team Outcomes to Date

What’s in a Face? (Lily Chaw, Elaine Cox, Nidhila Masha)


Art, Vision and the Brain: Autism and Face Processing

This Team in the News

Students Present Their Research and Learn from Each Other at the Bass Connections Showcase

From Durham to Brazil, Students Share Research Stories

Bass Connections Poster Awards Highlight Neurosurgery and Energy Research

See earlier related team, Art, Vision and the Brain (2015-2016).

The Franklin Humanities Institute provides additional support for this project.

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Geri Dawson, School of Medicine - Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Elizabeth Johnson, School of Medicine - Neurobiology
Jeffrey MacInnes, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
Michael Murias, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences*
Jessica Ruhle, Nasher Museum of Art
Marianne Wardle, Nasher Museum of Art*

Undergraduate Team Members

Lily Chaw, Biology (AB), Music (AB2)
Elaine Cox, Biomedical Engineering
Nidhila Masha, Biology (AB)

* denotes team leader