An MIT Alumni Association Publication

To the brain, the face is not just another part of the body. The brain devotes a region of the temporal cortex expressly to recognizing faces; a different region responds to other body parts. According to MIT professor Nancy Kanwisher ’80, PhD ’86, neuroscientists have been able to map dozens of cortical regions to specific functions—thanks largely to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain.

The Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Kanwisher offered a whirlwind tour of the brain at the MIT Alumni Forum on November 2. Her talk, “Functional Imaging of the Human Brain: A Window into the Architecture of the Mind,” highlighted several research advances her lab has made over the years.

For example, researchers were able to identify an area of the brain that is so specialized it responds only to language—not to music, math, or anything else. “I love this result,” Kanwisher said, explaining that it clarifies that people don’t need language to think. 

Kanwisher’s team also discovered a part of the visual cortex that responds selectively to images of food—research reported just this summer. Yet Kanwisher emphasized that while fMRI imaging is good at revealing the connection between brain regions and function, it does not illuminate causality.

So, having discovered so many of the brain’s highly specialized regions, Kanwisher asked: “Why should a brain be designed like this?” Her team has collected data from a variety of sources to answer this question and recently got some interesting results by training artificial neural networks—a computational model that mimics nerve cells in the human brain—to identify faces and other objects. 

“I’ve become excited about artificial neural networks and their ability to help us understand brains,” she said. “They are enabling us to answer not just what we see in brains and sometimes even how things work in brains, but why brains are the way they are. I think that’s super exciting.”

To learn more, watch the video.

The MIT Alumni Forum is a thought-provoking online series that brings alumni back to their years learning under the Great Dome. Each forum connects audiences with leading MIT experts while providing opportunities to engage with speakers and ask questions.