Understanding disorders of person perception

Atypical person perception is a feature of many disorders. In some disorders, such as prosopagnosia, it is the primary characteristic, whereas in others, such as autism, it can exacerbate difficulties during social interactions. We investigated how aspects of person perception break down across many disorders, including autism, congenital cataracts, congenital prosopagnosia, eating disorders, schizophrenia, social anxiety, mania, psychopathy, Parkinson’s, frontotemporal dementia, Williams and Downs syndromes, age-related macular degeneration, and epilepsy, often as part of CCD cross-program collaborations.

Here we provide two examples of this research. First, we hypothesised that critical adaptive processes were less flexible in autistic people, causing them to see the world in a truly different way (Pellicano, Rhodes, & Calder, 2013). We discovered that adaptive mechanisms for coding the important facial cue of gaze direction were atypical in autistic children, showing that the mechanisms coding gaze are indeed less flexible in autism. These results were central to our proposal that autism is associated with atypicalities in flexible perceptual processing, and in particular, of prediction (Pellicano & Burr, 2012). This work was recognised by major scholars of autism and cognitive neuroscience more broadly as a serious and important challenge to conventional accounts in both the methodology employed (i.e., computational, experimental and psychophysical methods) and in its substantial results.

Second, a popular idea in the scientific literature is that psychopaths have problems recognising when other people are upset. The theoretical interest in this idea has generated many individual studies of emotion recognition in psychopathy, which our meta-analysis drew together in the most comprehensive review of this issue to date (Dawel, O’Kearney, McKone, & Palermo, 2012). A key finding was that deficits in emotion recognition were not confined to fear and sadness, in fact, they were also evident for happiness. This finding caused a major shift in the literature. Our meta-analysis also provided the first cumulative evidence that emotion recognition deficits in psychopathy are cross-modal, that is, there are deficits in recognising others’ emotions from vocal and postural cues, as well as from facial expressions. This evidence is important because it implicates neural regions that are involved in emotion processing at a broad level, and fits with other evidence that atypical amygdala functioning may be core to psychopathy. These novel contributions to the evidence base have had high impact across the psychological, medical and legal literatures.