Heads of Laboratories
Laboratory of Neural Systems
Faces are our primary source for recognizing people and reading their emotional and mental states. Freiwald is interested in how the brain’s visual system extracts social meaning from a face and then drives other brain circuits to generate emotional reactions, activate memories, direct attention, and drive social actions.
From patterns of light received by the eyes, the brain constructs our perception of a three-dimensional world, inhabited by objects with shape, color, and motion. To understand the mechanisms that make this happen, Freiwald studies attention and a particular category of objects, faces, using functional imaging of the entire brain and electrophysiological recordings from single cells. Because a dedicated circuit exists for processing them, faces offer a unique opportunity to study object recognition. Likewise, as potent stimuli for attention, emotion, memories, and thoughts, faces provide a powerful means to study social cognition.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Freiwald has discovered specialized neural machinery for face processing. By combining fMRI with electrophysiological techniques, he and his colleagues showed that this machinery is composed of a fixed number of face-selective regions, each dedicated to a different dimension of facial information. Yet all except one of these regions are interconnected to form a face-processing network. Because this system is specialized to process only one class of complex forms, and because its computational components are spatially segregated, it offers a unique opportunity to dissect the neural mechanisms and computational principles of object recognition.
Freiwald’s lab aims to understand the inner workings of this system, from the level of individual cells to the interactions of brain areas, to answer questions such as: How does face selectivity emerge in a single cell? How is information transformed from one face area to another? What is the contribution of each face area to different abilities, such as the recognition of a friend or a smile, and how do the face areas interact?
The lab uses the face-processing network to uncover fundamental principles of brain organization: Why is visual information processing organized in hierarchies? How do populations of neurons extract and integrate information? And how does activity propagate through the cortex? Furthermore, by studying how the face-processing system is functionally embedded in the brain, the Freiwald lab is exploring its links to social behavior: How does a smile elicit an emotional response and cause someone to smile back? How does a face activate old memories? Understanding the circuits of the social brain that implement these complex functions may aid in understanding disturbances of social behavior in disease, such as autism.
The Freiwald lab is also interested in how the brain exerts attentional control, how attention interacts dynamically with the environment, and how attention and object representations interact. Vision is an active process, aided by attention, and it selects what is relevant and dismisses what is not. Freiwald uses fMRI to determine the entire network of brain areas involved in attention, its connections, and functional properties. The group has also identified a new cortical area for attention control. Faces, due to their high social importance, give rise to specific attentional deployments, and the lab aims to utilize this link to better elucidate general attention mechanisms.
Pre-diploma, biology, 1990
University of Göttingen
Diploma, biology, 1993
University of Tübingen
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001–2002
Hanse Institute for Advanced Study, 2002–2003
Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003–2004
Harvard Medical School, 2003–2005
Head, Primate Brain Imaging Group, Centers for Advanced Imaging and Cognitive Science, 2004–2008
Assistant Professor, 2009–2015
Associate Professor, 2016–
The Rockefeller University
Irma T. Hirschl/Monique Weill-Caulier Trust Research Award, 2009
Klingenstein Fellowship, 2010
Sinsheimer Fund Scholar, 2010
Pew Biomedical Scholar, 2010
McKnight Scholar, 2011
New York Stem Cell Foundation Robertson Neuroscience Investigator, 2013
W. Alden Spencer Award, 2016
Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize, 2018
Schwiedrzik, C.M. and Freiwald, W.A. High-level prediction signals in a low-level area of the macaque face-processing hierarchy. Neuron 96, 89–97 (2017).
Landi, S.M. and Freiwald, W.A. Two areas for familiar face recognition in the primate brain. Science 357, 591–595 (2017).
Sliwa, J. and Freiwald, W.A. A dedicated network for social interaction processing in the primate brain. Science 356, 745–749 (2017).
Freiwald, W. et al. Face processing systems: from neurons to real-world social perception. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 39, 325–346 (2016).
Freiwald, W.A. and Tsao, D.Y. Functional compartmentalization and viewpoint generalization within the macaque face-processing system. Science 330, 845–851 (2010).