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Modelling face memory reveals task-generalizable representations



Current cognitive theories are cast in terms of information-processing mechanisms that use mental representations1,2,3,4. For example, people use their mental representations to identify familiar faces under various conditions of pose, illumination and ageing, or to draw resemblance between family members. Yet, the actual information contents of these representations are rarely characterized, which hinders knowledge of the mechanisms that use them. Here, we modelled the three-dimensional representational contents of 4 faces that were familiar to 14 participants as work colleagues. The representational contents were created by reverse-correlating identity information generated on each trial with judgements of the face’s similarity to the individual participant’s memory of this face. In a second study, testing new participants, we demonstrated the validity of the modelled contents using everyday face tasks that generalize identity judgements to new viewpoints, age and sex. Our work highlights that such models of mental representations are critical to understanding generalization behaviour and its underlying information-processing mechanisms.

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Fig. 1: Reverse-correlating mental representations of familiar faces.
Fig. 2: Contents of mental representations of familiar faces.
Fig. 3: NNMF multivariate and compact representations.
Fig. 4: Generalization of performance across tasks.

Data availability

Data are available in Mendeley Data with the identifier

Code availability

Analysis scripts are available in Mendeley Data with the identifier


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P.G.S. received support from the Wellcome Trust (Senior Investigator Award, UK; 107802) and the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative/Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (USA, UK; 172046-01). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information




J.Z., N.v.R. and P.G.S. designed the research; O.G.B.G. and P.G.S. developed the GMF; J.Z. performed the research; J.Z. and N.v.R. analysed the data; and J.Z., N.v.R. and P.G.S. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Philippe G. Schyns.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information: Primary Handling Editor: Marike Schiffer

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Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figs. 1–9 and Supplementary Tables 1–7.

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Zhan, J., Garrod, O.G.B., van Rijsbergen, N. et al. Modelling face memory reveals task-generalizable representations. Nat Hum Behav 3, 817–826 (2019).

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