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What Makes Us Human? The Neuroscience of Social Intelligence

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

6:00 PM Reception
6:30 – 7:30 PM Program


The Rockefeller University
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Hall
1230 York Avenue at East 66th Street


Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.

President, Carson Family Professor


Winrich Freiwald, Ph.D.

Laboratory of Neural Systems

Christina Pressl, M.D.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Scholar
Laboratory of Neural Systems

When we look into a face, we often sense the thoughts and feelings of the person behind it. And faces do even more, capturing our attention in ways few other things can. A smile makes us happy and, maybe, makes us smile back. A snapshot of a friend from kindergarten summons memories long absent from conscious thought. A human gaze draws us in its direction almost magnetically, whether we are meeting someone in person or encountering a skillfully rendered portrait.

According to the pioneering research of Rockefeller University neuroscientist Winrich Freiwald, our complex response to faces is hard-wired into the brain. In studies conducted about ten years ago, he showed that face perception occurs in dedicated sections of the brain’s visual system known as “face patches”. This seminal discovery, and more recent findings in the Freiwald lab, are providing insights into the evolution of Homo sapiens as a highly intelligent species.

Dr. Freiwald and his colleagues have identified neural circuits that mediate emotional responses to facial expressions, and mapped parts of the brain that become engaged when an individual observes others in the midst of social interactions. The lab is developing theories about how the brain organizes social information, and testing these theories with brain imaging studies and computational models. Dr. Freiwald is on a trajectory to answer fundamental questions about how the brain, a tangible object, can give rise to the ephemeral—perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and creativity.

On Wednesday, April 10, 2019, Dr. Freiwald will discuss his lab’s latest work on social intelligence, underscoring the role that basic research can play in explaining the alterations in social and emotional processing that affect people with disorders such as autism and depression. He will also introduce studies of people with prosopagnosia—an impaired ability to recognize faces—and face “super-recognizers.”

Dr. Freiwald will be joined by his colleague Christina Pressl, a physician-scientist who has led the lab’s studies of face recognition in human subjects. Dr. Pressl, a 2018 Women & Science Graduate Fellow and the current Stavros Niarchos Foundation Clinical Fellow, is now studying face perception at the cellular and molecular levels, and opening new routes to understanding how the brain enables us to think the way we do.