We’re programmed from birth to recognize faces. As newborns, we immediately orient to faces, and our skills at face recognition steadily improve. When we see a face, our eyes quickly focus on distinctive features — a crooked nose, say, or big ears — to help us decide if the face is familiar. With “ordinary” faces, however, we tend to use the upper part of the person’s face — the eyes, eyebrows and hair — to pique our memory.
We’re good at recognizing faces even under challenging conditions — like when handed a very blurry, low-resolution image of a familiar face. Nor do we need to see every feature of a face to identify someone we know. If shown a distorted funhouse mirror photo of a co-worker or friend, we can usually tell who it is, contortions and all.
Why do we have this ability to recognize blurry and/or distorted faces? Scientists theorize that the skill may have evolved to help us differentiate friend from foe among people moving about in the distance. (Are those figures on the horizon marauding warriors from an enemy village or our own hunters, bringing home dinner?)
That’s not to say that recognizing faces is easy. We encounter a huge number of faces over the years — in person and through television and other visual media. In addition, there are only so many variations to be found on faces. As a result, faces can get somewhat confused in our minds — and they can be forgotten. (This type of memory loss is not to be confused with prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” a rare neurological condition characterized by an inability to remember faces, even those of family members and close friends.)
A surprising finding
When are we best at remembering unfamiliar faces? New research, soon to be published in the journal Cognition, suggests this ability peaks in our early 30s. That’s actually a surprising finding, as Science New reporter Bruce Bower notes:
Many researchers think word skills, memory and other mental functions crest in the early 20s, as the brain attains full maturity. Consistent with that assumption, memory for names and for upside-down faces — a task that requires recognition of general visual patterns — hits a high point at ages 23 to 24, says a team led by psychology graduate student Laura Germine of Harvard University.
But in an unanticipated twist, face learning takes about a decade longer to be the best it can be, the researchers find in online experiments conducted with 44,680 volunteers, ages 10 to 70.
“Specialized face-processing in the brain may require an extended period of visual tuning during early adulthood to help individuals learn and recognize lots of different faces,” Germine says.
Germine and her colleagues have found a sharp increase in face recognition skills between the ages of 10 and 20. Those skills continue to improve, although at a slower pace, until the ages of 30 to 34. Then it’s a slow downhill slide — but far from a precipitous one. The 30- to 34-year-old volunteers in Germine’s studies were able to recognize new faces an average of 83 percent of the time. The 65-year-olds in the study recognized those faces about 75 percent of the time — the same as 16-year-olds.
Hey, it could have been worse.