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Faces and Names

January 11, 2013

Have you ever encountered a person and remarked to yourself that their face looks familiar but you can’t recall their name?  Of course you have.  Everybody has had that experience.  This article explains why it’s easier to recognise faces than recall names.  We have an area of the brain that’s dedicated to facial recognition.  Its only function is to determine if you recognize that person.  Names of people are recorded in ordinary memory, in a different part of the brain.  Recognition is quick because of the dedicated brain region and because it only has to provide a yes/no answer.  Names are more difficult because they require searching memory to find the association, just like remembering the name of a bird or a fabric colour.

Facial recognition is obviously important for survival.  It’s critical to be correct.  Therefore, this facility must have been developed millions of years ago and refined over successive species.  As it’s that ancient, it must be present in other animals too.  However, there’s a flaw in the information presented in that article: that facility must provide more than just a yes/no answer.  Even if you recognize someone, that person may be a friend or an enemy.  Knowing how to respond is critical too.  The book “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief”, by Jordan Peterson, calls that the meaning of the face.  Knowing the meaning of something means knowing how to act in conjunction with that thing.

As well, you must have encountered the face before.  It’s the only way to recognize a face.  You must carry in your mind some sort of image of that face, although it certainly won’t be a photographic image.  It also must carry an emotional tag.  This causes you to feel an emotion when you next encounter that face.  The book “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain”, by Antonio Damasio, explains how this works.  The emotion tells you how to act, giving you the meaning of that face.  Fear means you should escape or attack.  Pleasure means you should welcome the person.  Either one has to be done quickly.

It’s also important for survival to recognize members of your family and tribe, even if you have never seen them before.  They may have familiar features.  They may resemble people that you have seen before.  They are likely to be friendly, although you’d want to treat them with some caution.  Strangers are likely not friendly, although again you’d want to reserve judgement.

Steven Pinker, in “The Language Instinct” explains our memory for names of things.  This requires another specialized facility in the brain, presumably separate from the facial recognition facility.  In fact, he postulates two, one for grammar and one for vocabulary or semantics.  The one for grammar is simply a set of rules that we follow.  The one for vocabulary associates an image with a name.  Again, the term image is not used in the photographic sense.  It could refer to a category rather than a specific instance.  Our internal thoughts are expressed as a series of images.  We use our vocabulary facility to translate images to words when we speak or write, and to translate words to images when we listen or read.  It would certainly also be used to recall the names of people.

Facial recognition with emotional tags would be sufficient for survival.  Once our survival is assured, we would want to know people’s names and positions for social reasons.  We can afford a bit of delay between one and the other.

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