"I'm good at remembering faces, but terrible at remembering names." How often has someone said this line to you at a meeting or a party?
But how true is this common refrain? By going on a little journey into the psychology of memory, I want to show you that what our memories do with faces and with names is not as straightforward as it might seem.
It is true that humans are experts at recognising faces. Most of us could name thousands of them, and it is something we tend to do easily and automatically. To a neuroscientist, this is a clue that this is a difficult problem made to seem easy because there is a lot of machinery in the brain dedicated to the task.
And so it transpires. There is a part of the brain dedicated to recognising faces – called the Fusiform Face Area – positioned in the part of the brain called the Temporal Lobe, which can be found roughly in the area behind your ears. If you have a brain injury that damages this part of the brain, you'll know people by their clothes or their voice, but you just won't be able to recognise them from their face, even if you have perfectly normal vision. There is even a form of inherited weakness in this brain region, so that whole families can be notoriously bad at recognising faces, including each others'. This condition, known as prosopagnosia, was made famous in Oliver Sacks’ book The Mind’s Eye, where he revealed that he is face-blind himself.
But these people are the exception to the rule. We are generally so good at recognising faces that we tend to see faces even when there aren't any, such as in the random patterns made by clouds and rock formations on the surfaces of other planets, which is a side-effect of having a brain specialised for this function.
What’s that yellow thing?
What is interesting is that we do not appear to have a corresponding brain region for remembering names. What we do have are brain regions dedicated to remembering words – and names are special examples of words. Get a brain injury in these regions and you would end up forever struggling to find the names for people and things. You might recognise a banana, know that it is a delicious yellow fruit and even have a good recipe for banana muffins, but you would be unable to conjure up the word to tell other people what the thing you are looking at is called.
It is tempting to conclude that when people say they are good with faces but not with names, it somehow means that their ‘face area’ is bigger or better connected than the ‘name area’. But, in fact, something more interesting than a simple imbalance is going on. There is a crucial difference between the kinds of memory task we are usually asked to do with faces, compared to the task we have to do with names. Or to put it another way, we might use the same word – ‘remember’ – to describe our ability to place faces and names, but in fact we are describing two different psychological processes: recognition and recall.
Let us return to the party to see the two different processes in action. Imagine you are looking at the faces of the guests. You catch someone's eye and maybe you ask yourself, "Do I know this person?" This is a recognition task – a facial recognition task to be precise – and the answer is either a simple "Yes, I recognise them", or a "No, I've not seen them before".