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. Face processing is 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.

In order to better understand how humans process faces, this Bass Connections project team observed how the perception of human, nonhuman and digitally altered faces differs within a neurotypical subject population. The team used eye-tracking to investigate how the brain processes images of faces; explored how facial information affects gaze patterns; learned how gaze patterns are related to various personality traits and social cognition; and established a neurotypical control group for use in future research.

In a study, team members measured subjects’ gaze patterns using eye-tracking in order to determine the proportion of time spent looking at the four core areas of the face (left eye, right eye, nose, mouth). After the eye-tracking task, subjects completed the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire.

The team found that performance on the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire does not predict time spent on eyes for grayscale and contrast-filtered images. Previous studies show that subjects with autism spend less time on the eyes of facial images than do neurotypical subjects. However, subjects whose BAPQ scores correlated with the autism phenotype did not spend less time on the eyes of filtered or grayscale facial images. This study’s findings show that grayscale and filtered images fail to elicit the decrease in eye dwell time expected in an autistic population—implying that they do not prompt the same gaze patterns as do naturalistic images. These results suggest that neurotypical individuals look at human faces, animal faces and face-like objects in similar patterns, establishing a baseline control for future comparisons with how autistic individuals look at different kinds of faces.

Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder are highly visual and creatively expressive. As part of this project, the team collaborated with the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development and the Nasher Museum of Art to develop a 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. In October 2016, the project team traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art (one of the most prominent national programs bringing children with autism and their families to an art museum) to meet with experienced educators to learn about their program, lessons learned and best practices.


Summer 2016 – Spring 2017

Team Outcomes

Museum as Laboratory: Neuroscience in the Public Sphere

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

Art, Vision and the Brain (presentation by Lily Chaw, Elaine Cox and Nidhila Mahsa, EHDx Talks, April 19, 2017)

Runner-up for judges’ selection of best Bass Connections poster

Honorable mention for best poster, Education & Human Development theme

Family-oriented activities at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) Discovery Day (April 9, 2017)


Art, Vision and the Brain: Autism and Face Processing

This Team in the News

Finding Your Way: Cultivating Humanistic Versatility

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

Bass Connections Projects from Duke Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

This project team was originally part of the Education & Human Development theme of Bass Connections, which ended in 2022. See earlier related team, Art, Vision and the Brain (2015-2016).

This project was selected by the Franklin Humanities Institute as a humanities-connected project.

Team Leaders

  • Elizabeth Johnson, School of Medicine-Neurology
  • Jeffrey MacInnes, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
  • Michael Murias, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
  • Marianne Wardle, Nasher Museum of Art

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Lily Chaw, Music (AB)
  • Elaine Cox, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE)
  • Sophie Katz, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Nidhila Masha, Biology (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Geri Dawson, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences