Behind the Brain: The Science of Recognition and Perception

In a sea of students walking across the Boston College campus, the brain can do a remarkable job of picking out a familiar face. While most people don’t think twice about how and why the brain is able to instantly identify others, Stefano Anzellotti, an assistant psychology and neuroscience professor at BC, certainly has. 

Anzellotti was born in Bonn, Germany to Italian parents and grew up in Trento, Italy, where he lived until he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Trento in 2008. He then moved to the United States and received his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard University in 2014. Later, he completed his postdoctoral in psychology and neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Since his early research days, Anzellotti has been driven by his fascination with the science behind people’s interactions.

“I’m very interested in how people learn things in the world around them,” Anzellotti said. “More specifically, I have been studying social perception and social cognition.”

By delving into the intricacies of brain organization and neural pathways, Anzellotti’s findings about facial recognition led to multiple breakthroughs in his field. For his compelling research, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded him the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award last spring.

According to the NSF, the CAREER Program supports early-career faculty who serve as academic role models in their fields from a research and education perspective, preparing them to be leaders who integrate teaching and research. The award is a five-year, $600,000 grant, and will support Anzellotti’s research in brain mechanisms, specifically in the exploration of facial recognition. 

Anzellotti’s intended research for the grant all began with a broad question which he had pondered for years: how do people recognize other peoples’ faces? From there, he expanded his study by incorporating the importance of facial expressions and social cues that can help with perceiving and understanding others.

 While many can only hope for a grant to fund their research, Anzellotti’s ideas sparked an interest within evaluators. The key to applying for such grants, he said, is to present your research and questions in a way that makes them unique.

“Many people have thought of related questions,” Anzellotti said. “You need to phrase the question in a new way and argue for why it is important. Then, you can argue for how you are going to answer the question and move the field forward, propose a set of experiments, studies, or research programs in which you are going to answer this question.”

With these broad questions guiding his research, Anzellotti delved into the scientific details behind the way these neural mechanisms operate. The traditional views developed about the process of facial recognition, Anzellotti explained, create two separate neural “pathways” that assign particular brain regions to certain tasks. 

In the midst of their research, Anzellotti said that he and his colleagues discovered something peculiar.

“When we started studying brain regions people thought were important for facial expression, we started finding something unexpected,” Anzellotti said. “We found that participants reading out the identity of people used regions thought to be specialized for expression. However, in the traditional view, those regions were supposed to ‘throw away’ that information. So, we started wondering why this was happening. We were so puzzled by this that we repeated the experiment several times.” 

With this discovery, Anzellotti began to hypothesize that the human brain could be trained to assign these “jobs” to the same region. Using artificial intelligence models, he and his colleagues tested the theory that if the brain could do one job, such as recognizing facial expressions, maybe it could also recognize identities, and vice versa—almost as if solving one of these tasks would solve the others. 

Anzellotti, along with other BC professors, found computational data to support the idea that this hypothesis was, in fact, true. 

“It’s almost like untying the lace of a shoe,” Anzellotti explained. “If you untie one string, the whole knot comes apart. Recognizing facial expressions and face identity are kind of like two strings in a knot, where if you untie one, you also untie the other.” 

After obtaining sufficient data to support this breakthrough, Anzellotti had what he needed to propose his idea for the CAREER award. He was first interested in how facial identity and expression are related, but now with the grant from the award he aims to explore why these two neural pathways exist when it seems that only one is necessary for these tasks. In the future, Anzellotti also plans to uncover whether this complementarity notion applies to other areas of cognition, which could affect how the brain is organized at large.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has made interacting with others in his department more difficult, Anzellotti and his colleagues are lucky to have the ability to continue their research with the grant, he said. The initial stages of the project are mostly modeling and computational, he said, which can be done remotely. The lab research phase likely won’t occur until about two years into the grant.

While his research alone could warrant this award, according to his colleagues, Anzellotti’s work ethic and admirable character are equally deserving of recognition. Liane Young, an associate professor in BC’s neurology and psychology department and director of the Morality Lab at BC, has worked closely with Anzellotti in the lab. 

In the beginning of Anzellotti’s BC career, he and Young collaborated on a number of projects, including a study which focused on how people use actions or words to learn about others. Both in and outside of the lab, Young is grateful to be able to work with someone as kind as Anzellotti, she said. 

“He is incredibly generous with his time and expertise,” Young said. “He is both incredibly competent at what he does and is incredibly kind. I’ve encouraged people with my lab to learn from him personally and professionally. He is a terrific mentor and colleague. I couldn’t ask for a better colleague in our department to work with and train graduate students with.”

Beyond the actual research, Anzellotti noted how beneficial the award is for professors early in their careers. Not only does it provide support for lab efforts, but it also encourages community outreach and pushes researchers to have a good education plan. More specifically, the grant will enable him to design courses and programs that will focus on the ever-growing intersection between neuroscience and artificial intelligence.

The development of these two disciplines, Anzellotti said, will be essential for better understanding cognitive impairments and will potentially improve the diagnosis of disorders and the development of treatments. In this regard, Anzellotti credits this award for pushing beyond his particular research and positively impacting the lives of others. 

“This exciting intersection of these two disciplines will hopefully involve training a lot of young, smart students and thinkers who will go on and do all different kinds of things,” Anzellotti said. “Hopefully, this will have some sort of broader impact for the area of neuroscience, but also more broadly for other applications as well.”

Maddie Phelps

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