It is amazing the number of times we meet someone and we’re convinced that we’ve seen him or her before. Despite the fact that we encounter thousands of people in our lifetime, of the billions on this planet we seem to have the ability to remember a random face better than we remember the color of our first car. Facial recognition is a skill dependent on a specific part of our brain
This is a scene that has been played out weekly on TV crime shows; a witness can’t remember what a person was wearing but can spot a crook in a lineup with ease. The truth is that this isn’t merely the work of clever writers. It turns out, humans do have a special face recognition system.
What is the system?
It turns out that there is a specific area of the brain dedicated specifically to recognizing faces. It is an area of the brain that shows heightened activity when a person looks at a face. This activation does not occur when they look at anything else, like a mug or a car. It is known as the fusiform face area or FFA.
The FFA is located in the occipital lobe which is located at the rear of the brain. In most people, the FFA seems to be more prominent in the right hemisphere of the brain. The occipital lobe is where your brain processes what you see, so it makes sense that if there is an area specifically for processing faces that it is located here.
How do we know?
The FFA was first recognized in 1992 by Justine Sergent, Shinksuke Ohta and Brennan Macdonald of Montreal Neurological Institute.
What They Did
Sergent and his researches performed lesion studies on patients who had brain damage in the occipital and temporal lobes. Some of the subjects, it was already known, had problems identifying faces while other patients did not have this problem.
Subjects were presented with grated images, arbitrary objects, and faces. The goal for the subject was to identify what they were looking at as accurately as possible. Note: They were not asked to identify if what they were looking at was a face or an object, but rather identify what face and what object they were looking at.
While the subjects performed this task, a computer analyzed the levels of blood flow throughout the brain. This is a form of brain imaging known as PET. It works under the premise that when the brain works, it uses energy, and when the brain uses energy it needs to replace it. Energy is replaced through the blood. Thus, if a particular area of the brain is working harder, it is also getting more blood.
What they found
As suggested earlier, what they found was that there is a specific area of the brain that ‘lights up’ with activity when looking at a face in subjects who had no issues identifying faces. In subjects with brain damage in this same area, they had a significantly more difficult time identifying the faces.
Pretty simple huh? People who can identify faces have activity in a specific area of the brain, even people who may or may not have had brain damage in other areas of the brain. People who couldn’t identify faces though, also had brain damage in the same area of the brain that was highly active in those that could identify faces.
What to make of this?
For starters, these findings give indications that there are certain areas of the brain that are dedicated to specific tasks. This helps explain why some people may be better artists than mathematicians. Or why some excel at philosophy while others at English. But this is idea is not limited to academics. In fact, a recent study indicates that there is a percentage of the population that excels specifically at recognizing faces.