The neural basis of visual body perception

Key Points

  • There is now substantial evidence from various techniques for body-selective neural mechanisms in humans and non-human primates. The neural signature of body processing generally resembles that of face processing, but there are also important differences.

  • In the monkey inferotemporal cortex, there are different cells that respond selectively to visual images of isolated body parts, to whole bodies and to actions involving bodies. Functional MRI (fMRI) in monkeys has revealed that these cells are located near cells that respond selectively to images of faces.

  • Intracranial and scalp measurements of electrical activity in humans have revealed body-selective waveforms that are similar to those elicited by faces, but that originate in different brain areas.

  • fMRI studies in humans have provided evidence for two body-selective brain areas in the visual cortex: the extrastriate body area (EBA) and the fusiform body area (FBA). These areas respond selectively to (headless) bodies and body parts, even when the bodies are represented schematically. They can be dissociated from overlapping areas with high-resolution fMRI or by taking into account patterns of activation across voxels.

  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation studies have shown that the EBA is actively involved in the successful processing of body parts but not of object parts or face parts.

  • Some researchers have suggested that the EBA is involved in the representation of one's own body and that it contributes to the 'body schema'. However, the EBA does not distinguish between images of one's own body parts and those of others, and shows a modest preference for allocentric views of bodies and body parts.

  • Both the EBA and the FBA are modulated by the emotional significance of body postures and body movements. This modulation is related to concurrent activation in the amygdala.

  • The EBA can be dissociated from other brain areas involved in perceiving body actions, such as those comprising the 'mirror neuron' system. In contrast to these other areas, the EBA does not seem to be specifically involved in the representation or discrimination of body actions.

Abstract

The human body, like the human face, is a rich source of socially relevant information about other individuals. Evidence from studies of both humans and non-human primates points to focal regions of the higher-level visual cortex that are specialized for the visual perception of the body. These body-selective regions, which can be dissociated from regions involved in face perception, have been implicated in the perception of the self and the 'body schema', the perception of others' emotions and the understanding of actions.

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Figure 1: Key findings from non-human primates.
Figure 2: Key findings from intracranial recordings in humans with epilepsy.
Figure 3: Event-related potentials reveal similar, but distinct, responses to faces and bodies.
Figure 4: Body- and face-selective regions of the human occipitotemporal cortex, as revealed by functional MRI.
Figure 5: Disentangling the regions of the occipitotemporal cortex.
Figure 6: Transcranial magnetic stimulation studies of the involvement of the extrastriate body area in body-perception tasks.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank G. Thierry for helpful comments, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Wales Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience for funding support.

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Correspondence to Paul E. Downing.

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Glossary

Transcranial magnetic stimulation

(TMS). A technique that delivers brief, strong electric pulses through a coil placed on the scalp. These create a local magnetic field, which in turn induces a current in the surface of the cortex that temporarily disrupts local neural activity.

Stimulus-evoked potential

An electrical or magnetic potential, resulting from coordinated neural activity, that is time-locked to the onset of a stimulus.

Configural processing

The recognition of an object by the specific spatial relationships among (or configuration of) its parts. Sometimes referred to as holistic processing.

Source localization

A technique used in electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetoencephalogram (MEG) research to estimate the location of the brain areas that give rise to the electrical or magnetic responses that are measured on the scalp.

Structure-from-motion

Even a few dots can create the vivid perception of an object or structure when they move in a way that is typical of that object.

Voxel

In MRI research, a voxel refers to the smallest measured volume unit, analogous to a three-dimensional pixel. In fMRI studies, these are typically of the order of 30 mm3, although much smaller voxel volumes have been achieved in more recent work.

Human motion-selective area MT

An area in the human extrastriate visual cortex that responds strongly to visual displays containing moving items. It can be functionally localized with fMRI by contrasting activation relating to moving stimuli with that relating to static stimuli.

Object-form selective area LO

A region of the human extrastriate visual cortex that responds to object form. It can be functionally localized by contrasting fMRI activation relating to intact objects with activation relating to scrambled objects.

Functional region-of-interest design

A design used in fMRI research in which one or more brain areas are defined on the basis of their functional properties (typically in each subject individually), and their response properties are further investigated in subsequent experiments.

Delayed match-to-sample task

A task in which subjects have to choose which of multiple target stimuli matches a previously presented sample stimulus that is held in memory.

Linear classifier

A statistical procedure in which items are divided into two or more groups on the basis of a weighted linear combination of their features.

Corollary discharge

A copy of the motor signal that can be used to adjust for changes in sensory input that result from the motor action.

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Peelen, M., Downing, P. The neural basis of visual body perception. Nat Rev Neurosci 8, 636–648 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2195

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