Celebrity magazines are all about the money shots -- tantalizing, high resolution, unmistakable images of the people popular culture knows well.
"You have to get what's going on just by looking at [a photo], so you don't even need to read the headline," said Peter Grossman, news photo editor at Us Weekly magazine. "You don't want an image on a cover that people stop and think, 'Who is that?'"
But people are better at recognizing familiar faces -- and words and ideas -- even when they are presented in different and potentially unfamiliar ways.
In a study published today in the journal Current Biology, researchers used pictures and written and spoken words to show that the brain consolidates multiple kinds of information into one concept that activates specific signal cells in the brain, known as neurons.
"What matters for the human is the concept, not how you trigger the concept," said Roderigo Quian Quiroga, professor of bioengineering at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and lead author of the study. "With any picture of Oprah Winfrey the neuron fires. If I say the name, the neuron will fire."
Quiroga found that reading Oprah's name also caused the same neurons to fire.
"Intuitively, it is very easy for us to link all this information into the same concept but so far, we didn't know how the brain does that," he said.
Quiroga and his team used brain imaging to track which parts of the brain lit up when people saw, heard, or read about a famous person. While visual and auditory cues are processed by separate pathways in the brain, these cues were ultimately recognized by the same neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory.
"Recognition has to do with stored memories and storied memories have to do with what kind of value is attached to them and what kind of context it is in," said Dr. Ausim Azizi, chairman of the department of neurology at the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, who was not affiliated with the research.
"The reasoning behind why some memories stick and others come and go is which has the most emotional content, positive or negative," he said.
Concepts or memories with the strongest emotional meanings -- such as those connected to family or a hobby or a personal interest -- caused more neurons to fire than those with casual meanings, making them easier to recognize.
But even when there is no clear emotional component, some concepts are familiar enough to be recognizable no matter what the context. Grossman pointed out that, while Us Weekly may never feature most celebrities wearing sunglasses because they make the person difficult to recognize, he has no problem using photos of Angelina Jolie wearing sunglasses because readers will still know who she is.
"We don't think [celebrity] is bigger than it is, but our readers have an emotional response to this," Grossman said. "They do get really passionate about it and we are sensitive to and aware of that."
One of the results that Quiroga said surprised him was how quickly abstract concepts were formed in the brain. Study subjects responded to photos of him and his fellow researchers within a day of meeting them.
"These types of very abstract representations can be created pretty fast," Quiroga said. "This was surprising because the patients didn't know me before."
Dr. David Beversdorf, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri who was not affiliated with the research, said the study, which provides a better understanding of how memories are created and triggered, may have implications for those with memory problems.
"It will be very interesting to try to look at the Alzheimer's or aging picture and see how these [memory] associations break down and what aspects are retained," Beversdorf said.