Another Face in the Crowd: Science of Face Recognition

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By Lord Jorrel Polintan | December 5, 2011 12:50 PM EST

People get to meet a new friend or acquaintance each day in their everyday lives. But remembering them can be a whole different story because trying to recall someone's name and trying to recognize their face can be a difficult social issue. It's a common fact that people tend to forget faces, and this failure to recognize a face can lead to the embarrassing question: "Do I know you?"

That is why Jia Liu, a cognitive psychologist from the Beijing Normal University, sought to understand how people recognize faces. According to Liu, people recognize faces holistically, or a face as a whole, and analytically, which is picking out individual parts of the face such as eyes or nose.

In their study, Liu along with researchers had a total of 337 male and female students to participate in a test to measure the ability to recognize faces, as well as their general intelligence. These participants were asked to identify studied faces and flowers from among unfamiliar ones.

In one of the tasks called composite-face effect, participants were shown two faces that were split horizontally and stuck together. Liu observed that it is easier for people to identify top half-face when it is misaligned with the bottom than when two halves were fitted smoothly together - evidence of recognizing faces holistically.

On the second task, the whole-part effect, people were shown faces then asked to recognize a part of it, like the nose.

Researchers found that people did better recognizing a whole face rather than just parts of it. Liu explained that their findings show why some never forget faces while others fail to recognize their friends and relatives, this is because those who do not forget faces remember others holistically rather than analytically.

Recognizing Face Blindness

Liu's study was done to help therapies deal with disorders like face blindness, or prosopagnosia, wherein the ability to recognize faces is impaired.

This disorder can lead to a debilitating life wherein an individual cannot recognize his or her loved ones. Just like Heather Sellers, a 46-year old woman who has face blindness, was interviewed in the Rachel Ray show.

Sellers explained that the disorder lead to a life wherein she doesn't recognize people on a daily basis. Saying that can't remember images of the human face, even for a second, and that she even failed to recognize her own mother and father.

Face blindness is a disorder that, according to Mary Kugler of About.com, can be inherited. But it can also be acquired when a person suffers from brain damage, head injury, stroke, or neurodegenerative diseases.

A way to deal with this awkward disorder is to learn other ways of remembering faces. People with face blindness can go with clues such as hair, voice, clothes, or accessories to identify others.

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