Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Adaptation to natural facial categories


Face perception is fundamentally important for judging the characteristics of individuals, such as identification of their gender, age, ethnicity or expression. We asked how the perception of these characteristics is influenced by the set of faces that observers are exposed to. Previous studies have shown that the appearance of a face can be biased strongly after viewing an altered image of the face, and have suggested that these after-effects reflect response changes in the neural mechanisms underlying object or face perception1,2,3,4,5. Here we show that these adaptation effects are pronounced for natural variations in faces and for natural categorical judgements about faces. This suggests that adaptation may routinely influence face perception in normal viewing, and could have an important role in calibrating properties of face perception according to the subset of faces populating an individual's environment.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Examples of face pairs for the dimensions of gender (top row), ethnicity (middle row), or expression (bottom row).
Figure 2: Category boundaries before or after adaptation.
Figure 3: Examples of the face images chosen as category boundaries.
Figure 4: Category boundaries selected by different categories of observers.


  1. Webster, M. A. & MacLin, O. H. Figural after-effects in the perception of faces. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 6, 647–653 (1999)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Leopold, D. A., O'Toole, A. J., Vetter, T. & Blanz, V. Prototype-referenced shape encoding revealed by high-level aftereffects. Nature Neurosci. 4, 89–94 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Zhao, L. & Chubb, C. F. The size-tuning of the face-distortion aftereffect. Vision Res. 41, 2979–2994 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Rhodes, G., Jeffery, L., Watson, T. L., Clifford, C. W. G. & Nakayama, K. Fitting the mind to the world: Face adaptation and attractiveness aftereffects. Psychol. Sci. 14, 558–566 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Watson, T. L. & Clifford, C. W. G. Pulling faces: An investigation of the face-distortion aftereffect. Perception 32, 1109–1116 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Moscovitch, M., Winocur, G. & Behrmann, M. What is special about face recognition? Nineteen experiments on a person with visual object agnosia and dyslexia but normal face recognition. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 9, 555–604 (1997)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Farah, M. J., Wilson, K. D., Drain, M. & Tanaka, J. N. What is “special” about face perception? Psychol. Rev. 105, 482–498 (1998)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Kanwisher, N. Domain specificity in face perception. Nature Neurosci. 3, 759–763 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Diamond, R. & Carey, S. Why faces are and are not special: An effect of expertise. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 115, 107–117 (1986)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Gauthier, I. & Tarr, M. J. Becoming a “Greeble” expert: Exploring mechanisms for face recognition. Vision Res. 37, 1673–1682 (1997)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Etcoff, N. L. & Magee, J. J. Categorical perception of facial expression. Cognition 44, 227–240 (1992)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Beale, J. M. & Keil, F. C. Categorical effects in the perception of faces. Cognition 57, 217–239 (1995)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. McKone, E., Martini, P. & Nakayama, K. Category perception of face identity in noise isolates configural processing. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 27, 573–599 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Ekman, P. Strong evidence for universals in facial expression: A reply to Russell's mistaken critique. Psychol. Bull. 115, 268–287 (1994)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Young, A. et al. Facial expression megamix: tests of dimensional and category accounts of emotion recognition. Cognition 63, 271–313 (1997)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Levin, D. T. Race as a visual feature: Using visual search and perceptual discrimination tasks to understand face categories and the cross-race recognition deficit. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 129, 559–574 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Furl, N., Phillips, P. J. & O'Toole, A. J. Face recognition algorithms and the other-race effect: computational mechanisms for a developmental contact hypothesis. Cogn. Sci. 26, 797–815 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Matsumoto, D. & Ekman, P. Japanese and Caucasian Facial Expressions of Emotion (JACFEE) and Neutral Faces (JACNeuF) (Department of Psychology, San Francisco State Univ., San Francisco, 1988)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the National Eye Institute.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael A. Webster.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Webster, M., Kaping, D., Mizokami, Y. et al. Adaptation to natural facial categories. Nature 428, 557–561 (2004).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing