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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 a person face-to-face, or admiring a skillfully rendered portrait.

The captivating nature of faces, it turns out, is deeply rooted in the biological brain. More than a decade ago, neuroscientist Winrich Freiwald discovered that face recognition occurs in dedicated sections of the brain’s visual system known as “face patches.” Subsequent research conducted in his Rockefeller University laboratory has yielded a remarkable series of insights into face perception and its essential role in our lives as social beings.

The Freiwald laboratory has shown, for example, that personally familiar faces activate special sets of neural circuits, which are linked to known memory centers in the brain. Dr. Freiwald and his colleagues have also identified 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 a social encounter. The lab is on a trajectory to answer fundamental questions about how the brain gives rise to an ever-changing array of perceptions that define and enrich our interactions with others.

On April 10, Dr. Freiwald will discuss his pioneering discoveries and touch on their long-term implications. He will be joined by his colleague Christina Pressl, a 2018 Women & Science Fellow and the current Stavros Niarchos Foundation Scholar, who is studying the brain’s face perception network at the cellular and molecular levels. Although the Freiwald lab focuses on basic questions in neuroscience, its work is laying a foundation for future research on impairments of face recognition, as well as the neural basis of disorders such as autism and depression, which are characterized by alterations in social and emotional processing. Through investigations that seek to connect fundamental biology with the nuances of human behavior, Drs. Freiwald and Pressl hope to open new routes to understanding how the brain enables us to think the way we do.