Brain Awareness Video Contest

The Reason Why a $28,000 Grilled Cheese Exists: The Fusiform Gyrus

  • Published8 Oct 2021
  • Author
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Have you ever seen a face when looking at an object, like the front of a car? This phenomenon, dubbed pareidolia, is a direct result of the function of your fusiform gyrus. This face-specific processing area in the brain helps you to do things like protect yourself from potential predators, bond with others, and put more meaning into objects that resemble faces.

This is a video from the 2021 Brain Awareness Video Contest.

Created by Siri Palreddy.

Content Provided By

BrainFacts/SfN

What do a 10-year-old grilled cheese 
sandwich sold for 28,000 dollars,  

babies, and nearly forgotten relatives 
all have in common with each other? 

Well, each of these has something to do 
with a very special area in our brain  

called the fusiform gyrus. The fusiform gyrus 
is located in your temporal and occipital lobes,  

specifically spanning the basal surface 
of your temporal and occipital cortex.  

So if we looked at the bottom surface of your 
brain, we'd find the fusiform gyrus right here.  

The location of the fusiform gyrus is 
pretty important when we think about its  

primary function of facial recognition. The 
temporal lobe deals with memory acquisition  

and comprehension in general, while the 
occipital lobe primarily allows us to see.  

Face recognition is sort of a combination of both 
memory and comprehension, as well as using visual  

cues. So, the location of the fusiform gyrus along 
the temporal and occipital lobes is intrinsically  

tied to its function in facial recognition. But 
how did we even discover the fusiform gyrus?  

Before the late 1990s, there wasn't enough 
scientific evidence to suggest there was a  

different part of the brain for perceiving objects 
from perceiving faces. It wasn't until a study in  

1997 was published that the notion of a specific 
region for facial recognition was solidified.  

Depending on what sort of stimuli you experience, 
different parts of your brain will be activated.  

This type of activity can be measured with a 
functional MRI, in which activated regions will  

"Light up" in response to a stimulus. In 1997, 
the first peer-reviewed paper supporting the  

idea of a face-specific processing in the brain 
showed that when human subjects were shown faces,  

the area we now know as the fusiform gyrus lit 
up. More specifically, a tiny area the size of  

a blueberry within the fusiform gyrus displayed 
a disproportionate amount of activity, with about  

97% of the area lighting up when participants 
viewed faces — but not when they viewed other  

things like houses, hands, or cars. And even more 
interesting, in most patients this activity was  

concentrated on the right side of the brain. This 
blueberry-sized region is aptly named the fusiform  

face area. In a way, humans were made to see faces 
not just in people but even in random stimuli.  

Have you ever seen a face in a cup of coffee, or 
a stain, or a car? Then you've experienced the  

phenomenon called pareidolia, which is directly 
connected to the fusiform gyrus's function.  

And it makes sense from an evolutionary 
standpoint that recognizing faces come so  

naturally to humans. Carl Sagan, the 
notable astronomer, once theorized,  

"Those infants who a million years ago were 
unable to recognize a face smiled back less,  

were less likely to win the hearts of 
their parents, and less likely to prosper.”  

So if we understand Sagan's quote correctly, 
infants with a particularly active fusiform gyrus  

would survive and grow up to pass on their genes — 
and consequently, their active fusiform gyrus — to  

future offspring. And in the adult stage, the 
fusiform gyrus and pareidolia continued to be  

useful. If our ancient predecessors assumed 
they saw a face even when there wasn't one,  

it could protect them from potential 
danger in the form of, say, predators. But  

in today's day and age, we're not really using our 
fusiform gyrus to defend ourselves from predators.  

Remember that grilled cheese sandwich and how I 
said it was also related to the fusiform gyrus?  

Well, the reason it was sold for so much money 
was because people saw an image of the Virgin  

Mary in the brown spots of the 
sandwich. It just goes to show  

that humans can find faces in pretty much 
anything because of our fusiform gyrus.  

However, there's still so much to learn about the 
fusiform face area. More studies are being done,  

for instance, some showing how even blind 
individuals utilize their fusiform gyrus,  

thus, challenging the idea that visual 
perception is needed for facial recognition.  

With a purpose so integral to humans' evolutionary 
journey and how we function with other people,  

it's hard to imagine what we'd do without our 
fusiform gyrus. And if you ever manage to sell a  

sandwich with a face in it for an insane amount of 
money, you know what part of your brain to thank.