Bits of brain that do special things

We’re in the midst of a golden age in cognitive neuroscience. With the advent of functional MRI, scientists can now peer into the brain while it’s doing stuff. One of the things they’ve found is that the brain is more modular than previously understood. The closer they look, the more little specialized bits they find.

These findings have been reported in popular media with decidedly mixed results, as discussed over at BrainBlogger. The science is so tantalizing, so suggestive, that its claims are often simplified and exaggerated. To get a sense of what’s really going on, it’s worth dipping into the scientific literature. Nancy Kanwisher, a neuroscientist at MIT, has written a fascinating review article that’s accessible to nonspecialists. It’s a model of good science writing — literate, pleasingly contextual, and well worth a read.

One specialized brain area Kanwisher and her colleagues have identified is known as the fusiform face area. Abnormalities in this piece of brain can result in a condition known as prosopagnosia, or face blindess  — a severe inability to recognize faces. This piece in Wired offers a good, if breathless, account of both recent prosopagnosia research and the lived experience of face blindness. (Disclosure: I am faceblind, as are a few fellow journalists I know of.)