Do I know you? Researchers identify woman's struggle to recognize new faces

Jul 23, 2007

The woman's condition, known as prosopamnesia, is extremely rare and has only been found in a handful of people around the world, according to University of Queensland cognitive neuroscientist Professor Jason Mattingley.

“For many years, scientists have been interested in how people learn to recognise new faces, and people who have difficulty with faces often have trouble interacting in social settings,” he said.

The woman – whose identity remains protected – presented herself to researchers after experiencing social embarrassment when she found she was unable to recognise colleagues, people to whom she had already been introduced.

The research, in collaboration with colleagues at Macquarie and La Trobe universities, is published in this month's edition of Current Biology. The work suggests the woman's "disability" might lie in her inability to encode or recognise new faces, rather than her ability to perceive them.

“She reports relying heavily on featural cues such as hair colour and style, eyeglasses, and eyebrows to recognise new acquaintances,” Professor Mattingley said.

On a battery of standard face-recognition tests, the woman consistently registered scores that indicated her ability to recognise new faces was severely impaired.

The woman experiences a similar difficulty in recognising characters on television, but after months of repeated viewing could slowly learn to identify key individuals.

For example, when the woman was shown 42 images of pre-nominated movie celebrities, she correctly identified nine-out-of-10 of the faces.

The researchers also noted that it was only after six months of testing that the woman was able to recognise the faces.

The group's findings were backed up by brain-imaging investigations, which indicated that the woman's exposure to an unfamiliar face, even over ‘multiple encoding episodes', was not enough to leave a lasting memory.

“It may be that enduring face representations are slow to form or are degraded in quality, or they may decay rapidly following normal encoding,” Professor Mattingley said.

While face recognition is currently thought to be an innate capacity that human babies have at birth, aspects of this ability are probably shaped by experience.

Prosopamnesia is probably a condition linked to an irregularity during neural development, Professor Mattingley said.

To add to the researchers' intrigue, the young woman has reported that some of her family members experience similar problems with face memory.

“If this is true, this woman's condition might present us with tantalising evidence for a genetic link as well,” Professor Mattingley said.

While more studies are planned, the woman has placed any additional investigations on hold until she establishes her career.

Source: University of Queensland

Explore further: Three-pronged approach could reduce suicide risk

Related Stories

I always feel like somebody's watching me…

Jun 25, 2015

What power can individuals have over their data when their every move online is being tracked? Researchers at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory are building new systems that shift the power back to individual ...

App makes virtual clothes fitting faster

Jun 16, 2015

The dress doesn't fit; the colour clashes; the neckline is most unflattering. They're all things it's best to work out before you buy, but too often don't. However, a new generation of virtual shopping could ...

Secret of extinct British marine reptile uncovered

Feb 18, 2015

The fossil had been in the collections of Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery for more than 30 years until Dean Lomax (25) palaeontologist and Honorary Scientist at The University of Manchester, uncovered its hidden secrets.

We are all made of stars

Sep 02, 2014

Astronomers spend most of their time contemplating the universe, quite comfortable in the knowledge that we are just a speck among billions of planets, stars and galaxies. But last week, the Australian astronomical ...

3D printing: The shape of things to come?

Apr 11, 2014

(Phys.org) —If you ask the proverbial man or woman in the street what they understand by the terms 'stereolithography', 'selective laser sintering' and 'fused deposition modelling', you're likely to be ...

Recommended for you

Best friends may help poor kids succeed

10 hours ago

(HealthDay)—Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods face more obstacles in life, but new research suggests that having a best friend can help these kids succeed.

Emotion knowledge fosters attentiveness

12 hours ago

Young children, who possess a good understanding of their own emotions and of those of their fellow human beings early on, suffer fewer attention problems than their peers with a lower emotional understanding. Evidence of ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.