Sunday, 2 October 2016

High School Reunion: Face and Name Recognition

I went to my 20 year high school reunion this weekend. I'd originally discounted the idea but braved it as I didn't want to regret not going. Needless to say I was nervous. Once I was on my way my 'extrovert' cover kicked in and I was ready... I'm pleased to say it was a good night and I'm glad I went.

This post isn't to detail the evening but to discuss what was a real-life demonstration of the way our brains process names and faces. Many people will say: "I'm not good at remembering names but I never forget a face!". This is true for most of us. Our facial recognition system is excellent. 

As social animals we are predisposed to detect, store and recognise faces. The more we see a face to stronger the memories become so we can recognise that person in different settings. This also includes other relevant semantic information (occupation, family members, voice etc). Names are not as important for survival so are processed differently.

Whilst we might retrieve semantic information about that person without recalling their name we don’t recall their name without also retrieving the semantic information. Perceptual classification, i.e. judging whether a face is familiar, occurs before semantic classification. A person’s name is accessed last (Bruce and Young, 1986). I must be slightly odd as I encountered an extra scenario (3):

1. I recognised the face and remembered the name
2. I recognised the face but couldn't remember the name
3. I recognised the name but couldn't remember the associated image from school

There are also other peculiarities regarding how we process faces. For example, we find it harder to recognise faces from different ethnic groups. This has obvious implications for eye witness testimony. We are unable to note distortions in faces if the image is presented upside down (Thatcher Effect). We easily see faces in inanimate objects, such as clouds, tree bark (pareidolia).

There are conditions where the process does not work as above. Prosopagnosia (face blindness) is a deficit in face perception whilst other functions remain intact. A more extreme version is Capgras syndrome where the person recognises the face but does not have the associated emotions so believes that person is an 'imposter'. Worst still, Cotard delusion is where you fail to have emotions regarding your own face so believe you are dead!

So next time you forget a name just blame it on your brain! It’s perfectly normal. My recommendation for 25 year school reunion? Name badges!

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