There’s a certain number of faces you can recognize at any given moment.

Pop quiz: How many faces do you think you could recognize? That’s a huge one you know. The faces of family, friends, colleague workers, and anybody you’ve ever met in person — the list goes on. There are even countless other faces you see on TV, magazine racks, billboards, advertisements, and social media — thinking of your thousands of friends on Facebook, right? By contrast, people don’t understand our capacity for recognizing and remembering faces. According to a new study, it’s much more impressive than you’d realize.

Related media: How Exactly Do Our Brains Recognize Faces?

Do You Remember Me?

Facial recognition technology is basically everywhere — our smartphones can virtually recognize us, so does Facebook, and most surveillance cameras, and who knows what else. But, what about people? In a 2018 study by the University of York and the University of Aberdeen, researchers tried to estimate how many faces we have in our memory banks at a given time. They were faced with two basic questions: How many faces can people recognize personally, and how many popular faces can people recognize.

First, the researchers sampled 25 participants and tasked them to simply spend an hour listing people whose faces they could mentally picture. To assist them remember, the researchers provided 14 brainstorm categories, which included themes like “family,” “friends of family,” “own friends,” “school,” and “people met on a trip.” The listing process started off easy — mom, dad, siblings, roommates, that occasional significant other — but eventually ran out of names, and it got more and more challenging as they progressed further.

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The researchers knew that because they automatically saved the participants’ work every five minutes, which helped them analyze the rate at which they remembered. None of the participants completely ran out of names when the hour was up, though, so the researchers did an extrapolation with the names from each person, and therefore estimated how many names they probably were able to recall.

Second, they did roughly the same thing, but with famous faces. Here, the prompt categories were different — “movie,” “football,” and “fashion,” for instance — but the process was roughly the same. Participants typically listed more faces from their personal life than celebrity faces — about a ratio of 4:3.

Forget Me Not, Please!!!

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At this point, still a tough one. In attempts to get a sense of how their participants’ reported facial recognition abilities as compared with their actual facial recognition abilities, the researchers presented study participants with a database of more than 3,000 popular faces and tasked them to indicate which faces they can recognized. (It only counted as “recognition,” for the study’s purposes, if they recognized two separate photos of the same person).

This time round, it was extended considerably for the participants to integrate it into their usual day-to-day activities over a period of three months. It turned out that participants recognized roughly five faces for every one they recalled in that first test. Researchers used that ratio and the original names a person listed to extrapolate the total number of faces they knew.

I Guess You Remember Me Now

Interestingly, the average study participant was able to recognize about 5,000 faces, and every study participant’s number drop about 1,000 and 10,000. Remember, though, this was just the number of faces the participants really knew. In theory, they could have been able to remember more faces; our ability for facial recognition is really unprecedented. That’s not bad for us big brain apes.

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Throughout history, human civilizations are normally made of small communities roughly around 100 people, quite fair enough for any person to encounter more than a thousand people. Currently, most urban settlements jammed with people, are usually made up of small neighborhoods that hardly get over the thousands. Previously, a research suggests that a given person spends their time in just 25 places, and can only maintain about 150 friendships at a time.

In other words, if someone punches you, you have to recognize their face, or you’ll be vulnerable to them punching you again. Likewise, if someone does a favor, you’ll want to remember their face so you can encourage future favors. Our ability to survive is linked to our ability to recognize faces. Thank goodness we can recognize thousands of them.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sat, Feb 09, 2019.


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