Cognitive Daily

How often do you see a face that you know you’ve seen before, but you simply can’t connect a name to? If you’re like me, it happens nearly every day. Face recognition experts know this is because our brains are hard-wired to recall specific faces. The semantic information about those faces is stored separately.

But faces are complex — especially when we need to remember enough about a face to distinguish it from others. If we’re presented with just a glimpse of a face, is that enough to place it in memory? A new study by Kim Curby and Isabel Gauthier examined that question:

Study participants studied up to five faces on a screen for varying lengths of time (up to four seconds). A single face was later presented and participants decided if this was a face that was part of the original display. For a comparison, the process was repeated with other objects, like watches or cars.

Curby and Gauthier found that when participants studied the displays for only a brief amount of time (half a second), they could store fewer faces than objects in VSTM [visual short term memory]. They believe this is because faces are more complex than watches or cars and require more time to be encoded. Surprisingly, when participants were given more time to encode the images (four seconds), an advantage for faces over objects emerged.

Unfortunately, the study provides no insight as to why I can’t remember the name of the barista I see every day in the coffee shop, or even my neighbor three doors down.

In other news:


  1. #1 Harlan
    December 13, 2006

    I did some reading about the topic of proper names a few years ago, the difficulty of learning of proper names, and although there are some theories, the arguments aren’t very clear yet. One idea seems to be that the links between phonology (“John”) and semantics (“my brother”) are weak, possibly because the names are simply a reference to another category (person 18512), rather than being the label for the category itself (“cow”). Alternatively, it might be the fact that we have to learn the names of a large number of people, all of whom have lots of properties in common, makes learning the associations difficult. Conceivably, the noun-learning system in our heads may be biased to assuming that entities that are more similar than not (say, people) all belong to a category, and that labeling each member of the category violates that bias and so is difficult… Someday I’d like to go back and work on this topic some more…

  2. #2 Ryan Fox
    December 13, 2006

    This may just be due to my own bad memory, but a few weeks ago, I saw a girl that I had gone to high school with for 5 years. We talked briefly, but it was awkward. I realized a few days later that I had called her the wrong name!

    I still feel awful.

  3. #3 Michele
    December 13, 2006

    I worked for a financial services company for 13 years. I had only 4 areas of the firm during my 13 years but I had dealings with people in almost every aspect of the firm. It has been 7 years since I left and I still run into people who ask, “Did you work at… ?” I very rarely recognize them but they recognize me (never thought I was that memorable!). In one case, it was a temp worker who worked on a project with me about 10 years ago (he even remembered the specific project). Most of the time we don’t know each other’s names but we recognize each other.

    Many times I see people who look familiar but since I am not seeing them in the context in which I am used to seeing them, I don’t remember their names.

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