The role of configurality in the Thatcher illusion

an ERP study

Natalie Mestry*, Tamaryn Menneer, Michael J. Wenger, Nicholas Benikos, Rosaleen A. McCarthy, Nick Donnelly

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

4 Citations (Scopus)
9 Downloads (Pure)


The Thatcher illusion (Thompson in Perception, 9, 483–484, 1980) is often explained as resulting from recognising a distortion of configural information when ‘Thatcherised’ faces are upright but not when inverted. However, recent behavioural studies suggest that there is an absence of perceptual configurality in upright Thatcherised faces (Donnelly et al. in Attention, Perception & Psychophysics, 74, 1475–1487, 2012) and both perceptual and decisional sources of configurality in behavioural tasks with Thatcherised stimuli (Mestry, Menneer et al. in Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 456, 2012). To examine sources linked to the behavioural experience of the illusion, we studied inversion and Thatcherisation of faces (comparing across conditions in which no features, the eyes, the mouth, or both features were Thatcherised) on a set of event-related potential (ERP) components. Effects of inversion were found at the N170, P2 and P3b. Effects of eye condition were restricted to the N170 generated in the right hemisphere. Critically, an interaction of orientation and eye Thatcherisation was found for the P3b amplitude. Results from an individual with acquired prosopagnosia who can discriminate Thatcherised from typical faces but cannot categorise them or perceive the illusion (Mestry, Donnelly et al. in Neuropsychologia, 50, 3410-3418, 2012) only differed from typical participants at the P3b component. Findings suggest the P3b links most directly to the experience of the illusion. Overall, the study showed evidence consistent with both perceptual and decisional sources and the need to consider both in relation to configurality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)445-452
Number of pages8
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2014. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • ERP
  • Thatcher illusion
  • configural processing
  • face processing
  • prosopagnosia

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