NPR Science Friday:
It’s happened to all of us: We’re at an event and recognize peoples’ faces all over the room, but names utterly escape us. Don’t feel bad. When it comes to linking faces and names, the deck is stacked against us from evolutionary, neuroanatomical, and practical perspectives.
For starters, our brains are far better equipped at storing visual data, such as a face, than a briefly heard name. “We are visual creatures,” says E. Clea Warburton, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Bristol. “Our brain has got more cortex devoted to processing visual information compared to that from our other senses. We are programmed to be encoding and retrieving visual information much more so than auditory information.” This ability probably has to do with how our species developed from troops of socially interdependent primates. Before the evolution of language and name assigning, our apish ancestors relied on sight to discriminate among kin, tribe, and outsiders.
Further, a face compared to a name “is really a much richer stimulus,” says Richard Russell, an assistant professor of psychology at Gettysburg College who has studied facial recognition. Visages convey a unique mixture of gender, age, ethnicity, mood, attractiveness, and more—plenty of juicy detail to soak up and help the visual memory stick. Names, meanwhile, are just a collection of several letters, and often common—and forgettable—to boot (how many Mikes and Kates do you know?).
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