How is the task of analyzing the visual world divided between the many brain areas that are devoted to visual perception? Do they all work together on each visual task, like components of a single general-purpose computer? Or is the brain more like a Swiss army knife, a package of separate tools, each specialized for a different job? Kanwisher’s work suggests that the Swiss army knife model is a good one, and that knowledge about different aspects of the visual world is embodied in distinct brain regions. Her work, which combines brain imaging with behavioral tests of human visual abilities, has led to the identification of distinct brain regions that are devoted specifically to perceiving faces, places or body parts.
Are these specializations pre-determined by our genes, or do they arise as a result of experience, perhaps including our cultural environment? Kanwisher has addressed this question by studying a brain area that responds selectively to written characters and showing that is affected by experience. Thus, by comparing readers of English and Hebrew, she has found that this area responds preferentially to characters from a familiar language -- a clear example of how culture can shape the brain’s perceptual responses.