Nancy Kanwisher’s group studies the functional organization of the human brain as a window into the architecture of the mind. Over the last 20 years her lab has played a central role in the identification of several dozen regions of the cortex in humans that are engaged in particular components of perception and cognition. Many of these regions are very specifically engaged in a single mental function, such as perceiving faces, places, bodies, or words, or understanding the meanings of sentences or the mental states of others. Other regions bring together unexpected combinations of functions that may ultimately provide the strongest constraints on the computations conducted in those regions. Each of these regions is present in approximately the same location in virtually every normal person.
Kanwisher’s group have identified brain regions that are engaged in particular functions. Collectively these areas can be thought of as the beginnings of a neural portrait of the human mind. This new neural portrait lays bare a vast landscape of new questions that her group is tackling now. What other mental functions get their own private patch of real estate in the human brain? What information is representation in each region, and what computations does it conduct? What is the causal role of each region in perception and cognition? What other brain regions is each functionally distinctive region structurally connected to, and what functional interactions between regions do those connections afford? How does all this systematic neural structure arise in development? How did it arise over evolution? Why do we have specialized brain regions in the first place? For more information on these topics, you can browse the short videos for laypeople at NancysBrainTalks, or recent scientific publications from her group (see below).
Nancy Kanwisher is the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a founding member of the McGovern Institute. She joined the MIT faculty in 1997, and prior to that served on the faculty at UCLA and Harvard University. In 1999, she received the National Academy of Sciences Troland Research Award.
Honors and Awards
Member, National Academy of Sciences
Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Corresponding Fellow, British Academy
Fellow, Cognitive Science Society
Member, Society of Experimental Psychologists
George A. Miller Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuroscience Society, 2020
VSS Davida Teller Award, 2018
Heineken Prize, 2018
Davida Teller Award, 2018
NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, 2016
Distinguished Woman in Science Award, Yale, 2016
Golden Brain Award, Minerva Foundation, 2007
MacVicar Faculty Fellow, 2002
Troland Research Award, 1999
Nancy Kanwisher, who uses fMRI to follow activity in brain regions (sometimes her own), explains in this video for the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences what makes cognitive neuroscience so cool.
Connectivity precedes function in the development of the visual word form area. Saygin, Z.M., Osher, D.E., Norton, E.S., Youssoufian, D.A., Beach, S.D., Feather, J., Gaab, N., Gabrieli, J.D., Kanwisher, N. (2016).
Nature Neuroscience 19, 1250-1255.
Facephenes and rainbows: Causal evidence for functional and anatomical specificity of face and color processing in the human brain. Schalk, G., Kapeller, C., Guger, C., Ogawa, H., Hiroshima, S., Lafer-Sousa, R., Saygin, Z.M., Kamada, K., Kanwisher, N. (2017).
Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114, 12285-12290.
Norman-Haignere, SV, Feather, J, Boebinger, D, Brunner, P, Ritaccio, A, McDermott, JH et al.. A neural population selective for song in human auditory cortex. Curr Biol. 2022;32 (6):1454-1455. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.03.016. PubMed PMID:35349804 PubMed Central PMC9107339.
Dobs, K, Martinez, J, Kell, AJE, Kanwisher, N. Brain-like functional specialization emerges spontaneously in deep neural networks. Sci Adv. 2022;8 (11):eabl8913. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abl8913. PubMed PMID:35294241 PubMed Central PMC8926347.
Kamps, FS, Richardson, H, Murty, NAR, Kanwisher, N, Saxe, R. Using child-friendly movie stimuli to study the development of face, place, and object regions from age 3 to 12 years. Hum Brain Mapp. 2022;43 (9):2782-2800. doi: 10.1002/hbm.25815. PubMed PMID:35274789 PubMed Central PMC9120553.