“I’m very, very good at recognizing faces,” said Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto, who studies the development of facial recognition skills in children. If he has met a person once, he said, he will recognize that person two or three years later. “One encounter for me is sufficient, my brain has encoded it.”
But young children take years to master this skill. And this is a holiday season when we mess around with faces. For those just developing the ability to recognize faces, Halloween masks, costumes, fake noses, false beards, wigs and elaborate makeup present special challenges. Just as babies can be baffled and delighted by peek-a-boo games, as they learn that people can disappear and come back, they can also be truly confused by the transformation of a masquerade. We’re playing here with complicated neurological systems, with effects on the brain that combine nature and nurture, and, perhaps inevitably, with social and cultural overtones.
Research in this field has helped tease out what those skills are that make some of us very good at distinguishing and remembering faces, and make others of us, well, kind of borderline — and I speak here as someone who relies heavily on the nametags which are, thank goodness, required in medical settings, even to confirm I am getting the names right for people I have worked with for a while. Dr. Lee’s ability to recognize and remember, he said, is based in being “excellent at picking up structure.”
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