A new UK study provides a partial explanation as researchers discover the brain has particular processes that are used to learn and recognize faces.
As discussed in the journal Nature Communications, researchers performed an experiment in which study participants were shown faces of people that they had never seen before, while lying inside an MRI scanner.
The research subjects were shown some of these faces numerous times from different angles and were then asked to indicate whether they had seen that person before or not.
While participants were relatively good at recognizing faces once they had seen them a few times, the scientists found that people’s decisions of whether they recognized someone were also dependent on the context in which they encountered the face.
That is, if participants had recently seen lots of unfamiliar faces, they were more likely to say that the face they were looking at was unfamiliar, even if they had seen the face several times before and had previously reported that they did recognize the face.
Researchers discovered that activity in two areas of the brain matched the way in which the mathematical model predicted people’s performance.
“Our study has characterized some of the mathematical processes that are happening in our brain as we do this,” said lead author Matthew Apps, Ph.D.
“One brain area, called the fusiform face area, seems to be involved in learning new information about faces and increasing their familiarity.
“Another area, called the superior temporal sulcus, we found to have an important role in influencing our report of whether we recognize someone’s face, regardless of whether we are actually familiar with them or not.
“While this seems rather counter-intuitive, it may be an important mechanism for simplifying all the information that we need to process about faces.”
Said co-author Professor Manos Tsakiris, Ph.D., “Face recognition is a fundamental social skill, but we show how error prone this process can be. To recognize someone, we become familiar with their face, by learning a little more about what it looks like.
“At the same time, we often see people in different contexts. The recognition biases that we measured might give us an advantage in integrating information about identity and social context, two key elements of our social world.”