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Brains Behind the Institute

Kalanit Grill-Spector

Kalanit Grill-Spector

Professor of psychology

About half of your brain will respond to visual stimuli—faces of family members, the sun reflecting off the Golden Gate Bridge, words on a screen.

But what really interests me is understanding how the brain enables us to comprehend what we see. My research focuses on visual recognition, particularly how children's brains change during childhood. We recently discovered that where and how kids look at faces and words changes as their brains develop. At some point, people learn to process the face as a whole unit, rather than each part, such as the eyes or mouth, alone. Likewise, as children learn to read, they stop processing a word like A-P-P-L-E letter by letter, and instead recognize it as a complete word. When this happens in kids' brains, we think it's because their neurons learn to process larger chunks of the visual field that are relevant at once.

What's really neat is that over time we can see changes in the brain and in behavior—the shift in which region of the visual field kids' brains process faces or words, and where kids look at a face or word. The implications could help us better understand disorders related to processing faces and words, such autism and dyslexia.

Studying higher-level visual areas has been my passion since I was a graduate student in Israel, where one of my professors and I set up the first fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner in the country to measure and map brain activity. To be in neuroimaging today, you need to have computational skills and keep up with cutting-edge methods and technologies in multiple domains. But, you cannot do great work unless you have a clear vision and great people, such as students and postdocs, to do the work with you. The Stanford Neurosciences Institute not only focuses on interdisciplinary research, but also on implementing big ideas that help change society, which has been central to the institute's success.

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