Heads of Laboratories
Laboratory of Neural Systems
Faces are our primary source for recognizing people and reading their emotional and mental states. Dr. Freiwald is interested in how the brain’s visual system extracts social meaning from the face and then drives other brain circuits to generate emotional reactions, activate memories, direct attention, and drive social actions.
From the sensory information received by the eyes, the brain constructs our perceptual world of objects within a three-dimensional space. To understand the brain mechanisms that control these processes, Dr. Freiwald’s lab studies face recognition and attention with functional imaging of the entire brain, electrical recordings from single cells, and other techniques.
Faces are a special category of objects because they are of high social and, therefore, emotive and cognitive relevance. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Dr. Freiwald discovered a specialized neural machinery for face processing. By combining fMRI with electrophysiological techniques, he and his colleagues showed that this machinery is composed of a fixed number of face selective regions, each dedicated to a different dimension of facial information, yet all (but one) interconnected to form a face-processing network. Because the system is specialized to process only one class of complex forms, and because its computational components are spatially segregated, this system offers a unique opportunity to dissect the neural mechanisms and the computational principles of object recognition.
Dr. Freiwald’s laboratory aims to understand the inner workings of this system, from the level of individual cells to the interactions of brain areas, in order to answer questions such as: How does face selectivity emerge in a single cell? How is information transformed from one face area to another? What is the contribution of each face area to different face recognition abilities, such as the recognition of a friend or a smile, and how do the face areas interact to recognize a face? And how is information extracted from a face area when a decision is made?
The lab uses the face-processing network to uncover fundamental principles of brain organization: Why is visual information processing organized in hierarchies? How do populations of neurons extract and integrate information? And how does activity propagate through the cortex? Furthermore, by studying how the face processing system is functionally embedded in the brain, the Freiwald lab is establishing its links to social behavior and, thereby, contributes new understanding of disturbances of social behavior in disease, such as autism.
The Freiwald lab is also interested in how the brain exerts attentional control, how attention interacts dynamically with the environment, and how attention and object representations interact. Vision is an active process, and attention is the key active ingredient that selects whatever is relevant for a behavioral goal and dismisses what is not. Dr. Freiwald is using fMRI to determine the entire network of areas involved in attention and identify its connections and functional properties. Using a spatial attention and motion discrimination task, the group has identified a new cortical area for the control attention. Faces, due to their high social importance, give rise to specific attentional deployments, and the Freiwald lab aims to utilize this link to better elucidate general attention mechanisms.
Pre-diploma, biology, 1990
University of Göttingen
University of Tübingen
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001–2002
Hanse Institute for Advanced Study, 2002–2003
Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003–2004
Harvard Medical School, 2003–2005
Head, Primate Brain Imaging Group, Centers for Advanced Imaging and Cognitive Science, 2004–2008
Assistant Professor, 2009–2015
Associate Professor, 2016–
The Rockefeller University
Irma T. Hirschl/Monique Weill-Caulier Trust Research Award, 2009
Klingenstein Fellowship, 2010
Sinsheimer Fund Scholar, 2010
Pew Biomedical Scholar, 2010
McKnight Scholar, 2011
New York Stem Cell Foundation Robertson Neuroscience Investigator, 2013
Fisher, C. and Freiwald, W.A. Contrasting specializations for facial motion within the macaque face-processing system. Curr. Bio. 25, 261–266 (2015).
Ohayon, S. et al. What makes a cell face selective? The importance of contrast. Neuron 74, 567–581 (2012).
Freiwald, W.A. and Tsao, D.Y. Functional compartmentalization and viewpoint generalization within the macaque face-processing system. Science 330, 845–851 (2010).
Freiwald, W.A. et al. A face feature space in the macaque temporal lobe. Nat. Neurosci. 12, 1187–1196 (2009).
Moeller, S. et al. Patches with links: A unified system for processing faces in the macaque temporal lobe. Science 320, 1355–1359 (2008).