Blog Posts


The Science of Smart: Where Visual Expertise Is Located In The Brain

Attention educators. This season, we’re thrilled to feature the work of Annie Murphy Paul, a writer who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. Her Brilliant Blog ( features the latest research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience, revealing the simple and surprising techniques that can help us learn to be smarter.

Neurobiologist Susan Barry knows first-hand how learning changes the brain: she learned how to see in three dimensions after a lifetime of being “stereoblind.” The study I write about in the following blog post is also about how learning changes the brain. It turns out that when we become experts at something—in this case, automobiles—we actually see the objects of our expertise differently. It’s another reason learning is so important: it shapes the way we see the world.

When we look at faces, a small part of our brain, located in the temporal lobe and called the fusiform face area, is activated. Now, the most detailed brain-mapping study of that area yet conducted has confirmed that it isn’t limited to processing faces, as some experts believed, but instead serves as a general center of expertise for visual recognition. From the Vanderbilt University website:

“In the new study published this week in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of Vanderbilt researchers report that they have recorded the activity in the FFAs of a group of automobile aficionados at extremely high resolution using one the most powerful MRI scanners available for human use and found no evidence that there is a special area devoted exclusively to facial recognition. Instead, they found that the FFA of the auto experts was filled with small, interspersed patches that respond strongly to photos of faces and autos both.

For most objects, research has shown that people use a piecemeal identification scheme that focuses on parts of the object. By contrast, experts, for faces or for cars, use a more holistic approach that is extremely fast and improves their performance in recognition tasks.

The scientists point out that visual expertise may be more the norm than the exception: ‘It helps the doctor reading X-rays, the judge looking at show dogs, the person learning to identify birds or to play chess; it even helped us when we learned brain anatomy,’ Gauthier said.”

The account of the study doesn’t focus on this, but what struck me is, once again, how learning changes the brain—how people who are experts in automobiles actually “see” differently from people who know less about cars.

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Annie Murphy Paul

    Annie Murphy Paul is a book author and magazine journalist who writes about how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributor to Time magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of “The Cult of Personality,” a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences. She is now at work on “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart,” to be published by Crown in 2014. You can read more about the science of learning at her website,