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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 24-Aug-12


Friday 24-Aug-12

Face learning

One of the ways we communicate is through the face. There are around 50 muscles and many of these are used for expressing a single emotion. Faces are not only important in communications but also for recognizing one another. When we walk down the street, we quickly scan the faces of everyone we see both for threat assessment and also to see if we know them. To walk past a friend without saying hello can be considered extremely rude and is known as 'blanking'.

While infants are good at recognizing their parents, our ability to recognize a wider range of other people develops more slowly. This can be ethnically limited too, and for those who are unfamiliar with the physiology of the Asian face, many Chinese, Japanese and so on can seem remarkably similar.

A recent study showed that we keep learning how to recognize other people right up to our early 30s. This is quite a surprise as cognitive development is often assumed to be completed by the early 20s.

Laura Germine and colleagues gave an online face learning test to 44,000 people aged 10 to 70 who were asked to study simplified faces and then recognize these people within a group scene, with them in various poses, with various lighting, etc. Ability increased through childhood, as may be expected, but then it kept rising until the age of 31.4 years. It then slowly declined until by the age of 65 most people had the same recognition ability as a sixteen-year-old.

A second experiment confirmed this and also found that the peak age for learning the names of other people is 23. Another experiment showed that if you turned faces upside down, then the peak age for recognition was only 23.5, which suggests a weakening of flexibility in recognition even while overall ability was still increasing until the person was in their early thirties.

Perhaps an additional note is to beware of assumptions about learning ability. Variation between people varies hugely and those who keep learning throughout their lives are far better learners in later years than those who largely give up after school or university.

Germine, L., Duchaine, B., and Nakayama, K. (2011). Where cognitive development and aging meet: Face learning ability peaks after age 30. Cognition, 118 (2), 201-210.

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