Good face recognizers can learn faces from fragments

Psychologists at UNSW Sydney and University of Wollongong have challenged the prevailing view that people with exceptional face recognition abilities rely on processing faces holistically.

Instead, they argue, people who are great at learning and remembering new faces — also known as super recognisers — can divide new faces into parts, before storing them in the brain as composite images.

“It’s been a long-held belief that to remember a face well you need to have a global impression of the face, basically by looking at the centre and seeing the face as a whole,” said lead researcher, Dr James Dunn.

“But our research shows that super-recognisers are still able to recognise faces better than others even when they can only see smaller regions at a time. This suggests that they can piece together an overall impression from smaller chunks, rather than from a holistic impression taken in a single glance.”

In a paper published today in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers described how they set up an experiment that tested both super recognisers and people with average face recognition skills to see whether revealing only small areas of a face at a time made any difference to super recognisers’ superior ability to remember a face.

Not only did super recognisers continue to perform better when only seeing small parts of a face at a time, but they seemed to spend less time looking at the eyes than other participants in the test.

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