By Alison Abbott
Doris Tsao launched her career deciphering faces — but for a few weeks in September, she struggled to control the expression on her own. Tsao had just won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award, an honour that comes with more than half a million dollars to use however the recipient wants. But she was sworn to secrecy — even when the foundation sent a film crew to her laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. Thrilled and embarrassed at the same time, she had to invent an explanation, all while keeping her face in check.
It was her work on faces that won Tsao awards and acclaim. Last year, she cracked the code that the brain uses to recognize faces from a multitude of minuscule differences in shapes, distances between features, tones and textures. The simplicity of the coding surprised and impressed the neuroscience community.
“Her work has been transformative,” says Tom Mrsic-Flogel, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London.
But Tsao doesn’t want to be remembered just as the scientist who discovered the face code. It is a means to an end, she says, a good tool for approaching the question that really interests her: how does the brain build up a complete, coherent model of the world by filling in gaps in perception? “This idea has an elegant mathematical formulation,” she says, but it has been notoriously hard to put to the test. Tsao now has an idea of how to begin.
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