Nancy Kanwisher

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded the 2018 C.L. de Carvalho-Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science to Nancy Kanwisher, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (USA).

A region of the brain specialising in facial recognition

Nancy Kanwisher is receiving the C.L. de Carvalho-Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science for her highly original, meticulous and cogent research on the functional organisation of the human brain.

Nancy Kanwisher is an exceptionally innovative and influential researcher in cognitive neuropsychology and the neurosciences.

Early in her career, she conducted behavioural research to study visual perception. One of her discoveries was that the short-term memory drops the second occurrence of a word in a sentence or a picture in a series of images.

Kanwisher was also one of the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to understand the functional organisation of the brain. Fellow researchers – even those who remain relatively sceptical about what fMRI scans really tell us – regard her work in this area as original, intelligent, meticulous, reproducible and cogent.

Her research is teaching us a great deal about the effects of such cognitive processes as attention and awareness. She has also localised areas of the brain that have highly specialised functions, for example perceiving places or images of the human body.

Her work has generated groundbreaking new insights into specialised brain regions and how they divide up tasks. Her discovery of the fusiform face area, a region that specialises in perceiving faces, was later confirmed in electrophysiological studies in non-human primates.

Much of Kanwisher’s work has found its way into cognitive neuroscience textbooks and it continues to influence the way researchers think about the functional organisation of the human brain. For example, it plays a role in a lively, longstanding scientific debate: is our brain mainly a holistic network, or does it consist of separate modules that perform highly local, specialised tasks?

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