Jun. 10, 2013

Why Do We Remember Faces but Not Names?

by Adam Hadhazy

Click to enlarge images
It’s happened to all of us: We're at an event and recognize peoples’ faces all over the room, but names utterly escape us. Don’t feel bad. When it comes to linking faces and names, the deck is stacked against us from evolutionary, neuroanatomical, and practical perspectives.  
 
For starters, our brains are far better equipped at storing visual data, such as a face, than a briefly heard name. “We are visual creatures,” says E. Clea Warburton, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Bristol. “Our brain has got more cortex devoted to processing visual information compared to that from our other senses. We are programmed to be encoding and retrieving visual information much more so than auditory information.” This ability probably has to do with how our species developed from troops of socially interdependent primates. Before the evolution of language and name assigning, our apish ancestors relied on sight to discriminate among kin, tribe, and outsiders.
 
Further, a face compared to a name “is really a much richer stimulus,” says Richard Russell, an assistant professor of psychology at Gettysburg College who has studied facial recognition. Visages convey a unique mixture of gender, age, ethnicity, mood, attractiveness, and more—plenty of juicy detail to soak up and help the visual memory stick. Names, meanwhile, are just a collection of several letters, and often common—and forgettable—to boot (how many Mikes and Kates do you know?).
 
Some of our face recognition prowess stems from a region in the brain called the fusiform face area, which seems to be specifically geared for the task. Damage there or in nearby brain areas can cause a condition known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Prosopagnosics can recognize everyday objects like “a cup or a telephone or a car,” Warburton says, “but they cannot recognize a face,” including those of loved ones or even themselves.
 
However beefy our fusiform face area might be, however, matching names to familiar faces is complicated further because these nuggets of knowledge reside in separate places. “We don't have a single filing cabinet in our brain that stores all the memories for all of the different types of information,” says Warburton. “The memory for a face will be stored in one particular brain region, whereas a name is stored in a completely different brain region. In order to put together those two pieces of information, the brain has to perform an integration, and sometimes that does fail us.”
 
How we usually encounter faces and names affects our memory, too. When we meet someone, we hear his or her name for perhaps a second. But as the conversation continues, we get to examine his or her face for minutes on end. “It's not a failure of memory but of attention,” says Warburton. “You haven't processed the name because this information is given very quickly.”
 
If our conversational partner's name were tattooed on his or her face, recalling that string of letters later on would be much easier. Alas, as Warburton points out, “we don’t walk around with name badges very often.”
About Adam Hadhazy

Adam Hadhazy is a science writer based in New York.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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Code:
line 1: package tmpevalpackage;
line 2: sub doEval { 
line 3: 	my($parent);
line 4: 	
line 5: 	if($LayoutManager::url_resolved_values{'SEGMENT.nickname'}) {
line 6: 		$parent = $LayoutManager::url_resolved_values{'SEGMENT.nickname'};
line 7: 	}
line 8: 	elsif($LayoutManager::url_resolved_values{'VIDEO.nickname'}) {
line 9: 		$parent = $LayoutManager::url_resolved_values{'VIDEO.nickname'};
line 10: 	}
line 11: 	elsif($LayoutManager::url_resolved_values{'DOCUMENT.nickname'}) {
line 12: 		$parent = $LayoutManager::url_resolved_values{'DOCUMENT.nickname'}
line 13: 	}
line 14: 	
line 15: 	if($parent) {
line 16: 		my(@books) = &Database::SelectClause('BOOK',"parent = $parent");
line 17: 		if(!@books) {
line 18: 			$parent = '';
line 19: 		}
line 20: 	}
line 21: 	
line 22: 	if(!$parent) {
line 23: 		my(@sel) = &Database::SelectClause('GLOBAL','record all ""');
line 24: 		if(@sel) {
line 25: 			$parent = 'GLOBAL.' . $sel[0];
line 26: 		}
line 27: 			$main::ENV{'reading_header'} = "FEATURED READING";
line 28: 	}
line 29: 	
line 30: 	 = '';
line 31: 	
line 32: 	if($parent) {
line 33: 		my(@books) = &Database::SelectClause('BOOK',"parent = $parent");
line 34: 		0 = 0;
line 35: 		my $dots;
line 36: 		foreach(@books) {
line 37: 			my(%data);
line 38: 			&Database::GetRow($_,'BOOK',\%data);
line 39: 			my($status,$title,$author,$url,$image,$width,$height) = &SciFri::Schema::getAmazonItem($data{'isbn'});
line 40: 			if($data{'title'}) {
line 41: 				$title = $data{'title'};
line 42: 			}
line 43: 			if($data{'author'}) {
line 44: 				$author = $data{'author'};
line 45: 			}
line 46: 			if($status eq 'ok') {
line 47: 				 .= "<div class=\"box-2x1-item box-slide\" data-href=\"$url\">";
line 48: 				 .= "	<div class=\"box-2x1-item-photo\">";
line 49: 				 .= "		<div class=\"image-wrapper\" data-jsclass=\"imageWrapper\" data-align=\"right\">";
line 50: 				 .= "			<img src=\"$image\" data-width=\"$width\" data-height=\"$height\">";
line 51: 				 .= "		</div>";
line 52: 				 .= "	</div>";
line 53: 				 .= "	<h4>$title</h4>";
line 54: 				if($author) {
line 55: 					 .= "	<p>by $author</p>";
line 56: 				}
line 57: 				 .= "	<div class=\"box-2x1-more-button\"><a href=\"$url\"><img src=\"/images/v1/icon_text_more_white.png\" width=47 height=15 border=0></a></div>";
line 58: 				 .= "</div>";
line 59: 				++0;
line 60: 			}
line 61: 		}
line 62: 	}
line 63: 	if($parent eq "GLOBAL.1") { $main::ENV{'reading_header'} = "FEATURED READING"; }
line 64: 	else { $main::ENV{'reading_header'} = "RELATED READING"; }
line 65:  };
line 66: &doEval();
line 67: 1;

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