People can recall an average of 5,000 faces from their personal lives and the media, researchers revealed on Tuesday, suggesting our brains have evolved to handle the recognition skills needed for modern life.
Facial recognition has long since intrigued experts, according to Eureka Alerts, but for the first time a team from the University of York set out to test study participants on how many faces they could actually recall.
Participants in the study were allocated an hour to jot down as many faces from their personal lives, and then of famous people, they could remember.
As time wore on, participants found it progressively harder to recall faces, which allowed researches to estimate when they would run out of faces.
Participants were then shown photographs of thousands of celebrities and public figures and asked to identify the ones they recognized.
Based on these tests, researchers established that the participants knew between 1,000 and 10,000 faces.
The study is significant as it suggests our facial recognition abilities have evolved to equip us to deal with the thousands of faces we are bombarded with in the modern world.
“The ability to distinguish different individuals is clearly important — it allows you to keep track of people’s behaviour over time, and to modify your own behaviour accordingly,” said Rob Jenkins of the university’s psychology department.
The average age of participants was 24, which provided a whole other avenue for research.
“It would be interesting to see whether there is a peak age for the number of faces we know,” said Jenkins. “Perhaps we accumulate faces throughout our lifetimes, or perhaps we start to forget some after we reach a certain age.”
Brain-imaging has shown that several tiny regions in the temporal lobe have evolved to specialize in responding to faces.
In a previous study, scientists found that these regions, known as “face patches,” contain specific neurons that are more active when a person looks at a face.
“People always say a picture is worth a thousand words,” co-author neuroscientist Doris Tsao said, according to Smithsonian.com. “But I like to say that a picture of a face is worth about 200 neurons.”
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