Has Reading Ruined Your Facial Recognition Skills?

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I have always had a facial recognition problem. If two actors have the same coloured hair then I can’t tell them apart and if a good friend changes her hair style then I won’t recognise her until she speaks. At the age of 25 an eye test revealed that I have a depth perception problem. It means I’ll never be allowed to fly a plane and it explains my inability to park a car, but luckily I didn’t have any dreams of becoming a pilot. My problem seems to be more severe than most, but new research may explain why more and more people are having problems recognising faces.

Photo: Pedro Vezini, Flickr

This week New Scientist revealed that the same area of the brain is responsible for both reading and facial recognition. They think that having a high skill in reading may impact the brain’s ability to recognise faces. Research into this possibility is going to begin soon, but I wondered if you’d noticed any truth in this hypothesis?

Have you noticed that your ability to recognise faces reduced as your reading skill increased?

Are your non-reading friends more able able to distinguish differences between people? 

Edited to add: Test how face blind you are here: http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/index.php 
I got 57% right (scores of less than 65% indicate facial blindness problem).


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84 Comments

  1. Annabel says:

    It’s names of new people with me Jackie. I am the world’s worst at remembering the boys’ names at school!

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, I’m not that bad at remembering names, although you’ll often hear me saying things like “I know one of them is called Sarah and one Lisa, but I have no idea which is which!”

  2. Fyrefly says:

    I’ve got very mild face-blindness – if I’ve spoken to and interacted with someone, I can remember and recognize them just fine, but if I went to a lecture and then later wanted to pick the speaker out of a crowd based on their face rather than their clothes, I’m hopeless. Didn’t know that it had anything to do with reading, though!

    1. Jackie says:

      Fyrefly, I try to recognise people from their clothes too! It works well until someone takes their jacket off – or you have to find them again the next day. Starting a new job was always a problem for me as ittakes me so long to remember who is who :-(

  3. Jessica says:

    Its names of characters in books for me! No matter how much I read I never remember characters names LOL

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, I sometimes struggle if a lot of different charaters are introduced at the same time, but normally I don’t have a problem with that.

  4. Sandy says:

    I’m not sure I’m buying this. I’ve always been really good with faces (names, not so much!). I will remember a face that I saw once or twice for years after. I’d be interested, though, in what they find.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Remembering a face you once saw years ago?! Wow! I’m so jealous.

    2. Tag says:

      My husband is like that too. He can meet someone one time, even if it’s just a cashier at some store, and recognize them months or years later no matter how they have changed. I, on the other hand struggle with people’s faces who are in varying degrees a part of my life! It’s so frustrating! It’s worse with women who are always changing their hairstyle or hair color. But almost never a problem for my husband.

      1. Jackie says:

        Tag, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time!

        I wish I could remember people after such a brief meeting. Your husband is a very lucky man. :-)

  5. Pam says:

    I haven’t but I do have a depth perception problem as well that is more severe than most…

    1. Jackie says:

      Pam, Do you ever wonder what the world really looks like? It is weird how we all see it so differently. :-)

      1. Maybe no-one knows what the world really looks like. Who knows what we people are not noticing? You may not have great depth, but maybe we all miss a certain sensory receiver, it’s just that we don’t know. :-) ))

        1. Jackie says:

          Judith, That is probably true!!

  6. Jeanne says:

    I am terrible at recognizing faces, and I live in a small town, so it’s embarrassing when someone knows me but I have no idea who they are. This has only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older–there’s never been an upswing in the amount of my reading, but cumulative effect, maybe!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeanne, I hate it when other people recognise me too. It makes me feel so bad. It is especially bad when they are in a strange environment and I can’t even guess how I know them :-(

    2. Tag says:

      I’m in the same boat too Jeanne. I’m always afraid i’ll walk right past someone I should know and not acknowledge them and they’ll think I’m ignoring them for some reason. It’s so awkward when they recognize you but you can’t place them even though you should. I just resort to saying “guess I can’t see very well without my glasses on!”(though i don’t wear glasses). I feel bad about it! Glad I’m not alone though. If I don’t see someone regularly over a period of time it’s almost impossible for me to recognize them, especially if the person is in a place different from where I normally see them.

  7. I think that despite the excessive reading I’m still pretty good at recognising faces, very good in fact. It’s their bloody names I can never remember. That’s why us actors spend all day calling each other ‘dahling’ and ‘love’.

    1. Jackie says:

      William, There seems to be a divide forming between those good at names and those good at faces. I wonder if many people are lucky enough to be good at both?

  8. Rebecca Reid says:

    I do have this problem! I can’t tell actors apart. Black and white movies especially are the worst. Sometimes I can’t even say if so-and-so (whom I know and see every week) wears glasses or not. I just don’t notice the details. Pretty bad.

    1. Jackie says:

      Rebecca, I don’t find black and white any worse than colour. It is one of the benefits of having big-name actors in a film though – I’m more likely to recognise someone like Brad Pitt which makes following a plot easier.

  9. Steph says:

    I am also really good with faces despite liking to read… also, what’s weird is that they focus on the VWFA (area that responds to words), but this is NOT the same area that responds to faces (that is the FFA). So when you see a face, the VWFA shows less activation in literate people than in illiterate people, which is fine, since in most literate people, the FFA is responsible for face recognition.

    What’s interesting in this study is that they do not actually show that people with poor literacy are BETTER at face processing… just that their VWFA is more active when faces are present… but what is that area doing? We have no idea! They didn’t actually get any behavioral measures of face processing, so to claim that one is a better at identifying/remembering faces when you can’t read is incredibly specious, since all we can say is that the brain activates differently. In fact, if you read the original article in Science (which I did because I’m a nerd and my school has a subscription), they actually posit that learning to read might be beneficial because it could cause higher specialization and localization in processing of faces and other visual stimuli within the brain. So while the New Scientist article suggests that there is only competition between words and faces, the original article does no such thing!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, Thank you for pointing out that the New Scientist article may be flawed. I hadn’t seen the Science article and there isn’t any real detail in the online summary. I guess we’ll just have to wait for further research to be done in this area to see what effects reading actually has on the brain.

      1. Steph says:

        Oh for sure! I do think it’s an interesting finding, but I also now that the popular press has a way of diluting the truth slightly when it comes to scientific findings. It’s certainly interesting to think of how one visual skill (reading) might compete with another (face recognition)! I hadn’t heard of this paper until you brought it to my attention and it’s somewhat in my area of research, so thanks!

  10. Amanda says:

    Wow, that’s really interesting! I’m not sure I suffer from facial recognition problems, but my whole life, I’ve been unable to recall faces in memory. I can recall the way a person looks, their hair, their body shape, etc, but unless I’m thinking of a specific photograph, I can’t picture their face more than one feature at a time. That goes from people I barely know to people I’ve lived with my whole life. I can’t picture my own face, for instance, or my husband’s, or my sister’s, or my sons’. I’ve stopped mentioning this though, because I’ve found some people take offense to the fact that I can’t remember what they look like even though I’ve known them for years.

    On the other hand, I have no problem recognizing people when I see them, unless they’re someone I simply haven’t paid a lot of attention to (like actors).

    1. Jackie says:

      Amanda, I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but I can’t picture individuals in my mind either – I can only think about specific photos too. I can almost manage it with my husband and boys, but maybe that is because I have so many photos of them?!

      1. Amanda says:

        Very interesting to meet someone else who does that too! Everyone else always thinks I’m a bit weird when it comes to this. Can you picture your own face? I can picture my hair but not my face.

        1. Jackie says:

          Amanda, I have no idea what I look like!

  11. BibliophilebytheSea says:

    Jackie, you really should read this memoir:

    http://www.heathersellers.com/writing/nonfiction/facefirst.html

    It’s the first thing I thought of as I read your post.

    1. Jackie says:

      BibliophilebytheSea, That looks like a book I have to read! There are some great links on that page too. I’ve just done the facial blindness test (update in post) Thank you for pointing it out to me :-)

  12. sakura says:

    Interesting but I’ve never really had that problem either as I’ve always been pretty good at recognising people. But these days I keep forgetting names, gah!

    1. Jackie says:

      sakura, I wonder if I’ll start to have that problem as I get older? :-(

  13. Dorte H says:

    Not fly a plane? Oh, horror!

    No, I don´t think that theory is true. In our family, we are all avid readers, and though I am awful at remembering the names of my students, I have no problems with people´s faces. Neither have my daughters.

    I am better at remembering exactly what a person said than what she was wearing, however, so I do know that my word attack skills are better than my ability to visualize.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, LOL! I hate getting in a plane so the thought of flying one just makes me feel ill :-(

      It is good to know that you and your daughters have escaped the face recognition problems :-)

  14. Cindy S says:

    I am horrible at face recognition and recall. couldn’t describe my family other than hair color, glasses, etc. It’s bad when I’m out running errands and walk right by someone I know. I can usually chalk it up to distraction, but some people get really miffed.

    I’m equally bad with names.

    1. Jackie says:

      Cindy, I’m sure some people think I’m really rude when I ignore them in the street, but I’m a bit short sighted so that makes it even harder to spot people at a distance :-(

  15. JoV says:

    I attribute to ageing rather than a deficiency for not being able to remember names, but I am quite good at recognising faces. I have a friend who is a mathematical geek, she works with me and she can’t recognises faces very well, anyone who has the same hairstyle, blond and with the same heights are deemed as the same person. Imagine my horror when she couldn’t tell the difference between the CEO and the Head of a dept!!! :D

    It’s when people say their names too fast that I couldn’t catch it, but if I visualise it, or read it on paper, I’ll remember it. I have to see it first. I am more of visual than any other senses sort of person. My worse senses is auditory. that explains to date I have never tried listening to audio books. :(

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I think I’m as bad as your friend! For 2 years I thought two people with shoulder length brown hair were the same person and was shocked to discover they were actually sisters. The problem was that they took it in turns to pick up their children from nursery so I never saw them together. When I finally did I was shocked – they actually looked quite different side by side, but I’d never noticed :-(

  16. That would be very interesting, if true. It doesn’t bear out with me, though, I tend to be better at recognizing faces than at attaching a person’s name. By the way, if you have some degree of face blindness, you might be interested in the memoir “You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know” by Heather Sellers. I’m not positive if it is out in the UK, but it came out from Riverhead (Penguin) in the US in October.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jen, Thank you for recommending the book. You are the second person to suggest it so that is a sign it is good :-) It is out in the UK so I’ll see if I can find a copy.

      1. I just saw that! Some parts of it bothered me, but overall it is a really interesting story.

  17. Amy says:

    This explains an awful lot :) I’m not very good at recognizing faces or remembering names, though better at recognizing faces. I would recognize someone who got their hair cut and dyed, but I may not notice that they got their hair cut and dyed either!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, It may or may not be true, but at least it is a good excuse to tell people ;-)

  18. I’m actually quite good at recognizing faces in terms of famous people. I’m always quick with the answer to what else s/he has been in. On the test I scored a 76%, which is pretty good. I’m curious how much is actually facial recognition for me and how much includes body, hair, etc. attributes.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I found the test really hard and I think the lack of hair really added to the problems. I found it quite easy to do the ones straight after seeing the picture, but the longer between seeing the picture and guessing the harder it got. I don’t think I’d recognise any of those 6 faces tomorrow :-(

  19. I took the test at the link you posted and I scored 93%. So maybe I just suck at reading. ;) No, actually, I am one of those people that remembers faces but not names. I have to be introduced to someone half a dozen times before their name sticks in my mind. But it’s even worse when, like you mentioned in a comment, I see a familiar face in an unfamiliar location. That really throws me off!! Sometimes even if I know their name, I can’t remember it if the person isn’t where they belong!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathy, Wow! That is an impressive score. I can’t imagine doing that well.

      I think a lot of people struggle to remember people in unfamiliar situations so we are not alone :-)

  20. Kathleen says:

    Wow, this was really interesting. I scored 96% which was higher than I would have thought but I know I am a “visual” person and that is my strength. If you gave me a hearing or listening test my score would be lower!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, I’m very impressed by all these high scores :-) I have very good hearing – in fact it is too good sometimes. I can hear high-pitched noises that others can’t. My in-laws had a squirrel scarer that drove me mad – I had to get them to turn it off!

  21. TERESA says:

    As I mentioned already to you on Twitter, Jackie, my husband is terrible at remembering faces and, come to think of it, names too. We didn’t think there was a medical term for it and we christened it “facial dyspepsia”. He is not an avid reader at all! I will let you know how he gets on in the test. ;-)

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, I hope your husband likes knowing there is a proper medical name for this condition. I look forward to hearing how he gets on. :-)

      1. TERESA says:

        He got 93%! Well, what on earth does that mean? He beat my score too. I think he’s just trying to create an interesting, eccentric aura around himself! ;-)

  22. Brenna says:

    I’m not sure I have a problem with remembering faces but since you mentioned you have a depth perception problem I wanted to ask you, do you have a hard time driving at night? Within the last year or so I’ve noticed I am having trouble driving at night because of the lights. I get confused where there are exactly, how close and how far away. I’m wondering if it’s because of poor depth perception. I’m 25 – the age you were when you had your test. I’m wondering if I should do the same!

    1. Jackie says:

      Brenna, I hate driving at night! It isn’t so bad in well lit areas, but I try to avoid driving on unlit roads. It is hard for me to judge the speed/distance of other vehicles during the day, but even harder at night. There is no harm in you getting a test done, but I’m not sure where you’d get it. Mine was a specialist test through work. It was to see if I could operate some machinery and it turned out I wasn’t able to – I was actually quite pleased.

      1. Brenna says:

        Well it’s nice to know I’m not the only one with this problem! Rather than finding out how to get the test I will just continue to avoid driving at night.

  23. I love stuff like this! I scored 90% which doesn’t surprise me as I am really good at recognising people and remembering names. In fact I was in Asda just last week and I was served by someone I recognised and all of a sudden it just came to me and I said “Is your name Anne-Marie?” and she looked at me really surprised and said yes. It turs out she was 2 years above me in school and I haven’t seen her for 25 years! She was gobsmacked that I remembered her as I don’t think we ever even spoke to each other.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, That is amazing! I don’t think I’d recognise most of the people in my year. There is no way I’d recognise anyone two years above me!

  24. cbjames says:

    All this time I thought it was from growing older.

    What a relief!

    Interesting post.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, I’m afraid you’re still growing older ;-)

  25. raidergirl3 says:

    I just read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks which covers some of these topics! Depth perception (of which I have none) and the face recognition thing. Plus lots of other brain/perception issues. It was quite interesting.

    The face test was fun. I did excellent on the famous faces (just missed Blair, with whom I’m not really familiar) and then the bald guys I got 75%, which seems quite good. Not as good as some of the people up thread, but still respectable.

    1. Jackie says:

      raidergirl3, The Mind’s Eye sounds like an interesting book too. I’m going to keep an eye out for it. Thank you for drawing it to my attention :-)

  26. Jenny says:

    I have shocking facial recognition skills. I remember names for years but not faces. Part of me would like to be able to blame this on reading and be able to back it up with Science. But I think saying “I can’t remember who you are because I read too much” would just sound snotty. :p

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I agree. I don’t think it is something I’d be telling anyone about – it is one of those things that you can keep in the back of your mind so that you can smile when you next have a facial recognition problem ;-)

  27. Violet says:

    I don’t have problems with face recognition. I scored 85% in this test. But I do have major problems remembering numbers.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, Congratulations for getting 85%. That is a good score! I’m OK at remembering numbers, but unfortunately it isn’t something I need to do much these days :-(

  28. Interesting. Bizarre! Not sure… I will have to take the test.

    1. Jackie says:

      Novel Insights, I’m pleased that you found it interesting and hope you did well in the test :-)

  29. Beth F says:

    I’m going to go take the test, but I don’t need no stinkin’ test! I am the worst — especially with actors and actresses: One change of hair style and I’m lost. So I fit the pattern.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, Female actresses are the worst – why do they have to keep changing their hairstyle? I hate it when they keep doing it in a film as it confuses me so much :-(

  30. Alex says:

    I’m ok with faces, but names get to me all the time, which is a bit of an problem when you work in media relation like I do.

    It’s worse if it’s a name in a language and I don’t speak. It is almost impossible for me to memorize names of places I’ve visited in countries like Croatia or Russia, unless they have “Latinized”names. I got a 96% on the test :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, I’m not very good at remembering unfamiliar names either – especially if they are difficult to pronounce. :-(

  31. Meghan says:

    I think I might defy this stereotype – I am insanely good at remembering people. Predictably I got 90% on the test and I know I got one wrong because I accidentally hit the wrong number! I have remembered people who have forgotten me on more than one occasion, which is incredibly awkward. Usually it takes just one meeting. I do forget names sometimes. In my current job I met my boss before I started and forgot his name between being hired and starting work, since it was done through one of the directors, which led to a very awkward first day.

    1. Jackie says:

      Meghan, It is interesting to learn that you feel awkward when you remember someone who doesn’t recognise you – I thought it was only the person who forgot who felt awkward. At least you now know that it isn’t personal – we forget everyone!

  32. I thought I’d be rubbish at this but I got 81% in the test, which is apprently average. Huh. Interesting.

    1. Jackie says:

      Nose in a book, Some people have a real talent for remembering faces – perhaps they are your friends? ;-) At least you can now take comfort in the fact you are exactly average in your facial recognition skills :-)

  33. Alyce says:

    I don’t have time to take the test right now, but I know from past experience that I have poor face recognition skills. There is a face recognition game on the wii that I absolutely stink at. I’ve played it over and over and I can never get past the first few levels (it’s timed), while my husband and kids can all do better. At least this would give me an excuse. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Alyce, There is no way I’d play that wii game – I’d find it so frustrating :-(

  34. Jeane says:

    I’m always running into people I know I’ve met before, but I have no idea where or who they are. I just know it’s a vaguely familiar face. They always seem to recognize me, though. I also mix up actors faces all the time. I’m always saying to my husband: “haven’t we seen him/her in something…?” or guessing an actor’s name and being totally wrong! I’m off to try that test myself.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, It sounds as though you have facial recognition problems too. I hope you found the test interesting :-)

  35. joanna says:

    That’s so interesting… I’m terrible at recognising faces. I can’t watch movies with lots of characters and complicated plots because we have to pause every few minutes so that my bf explains what’s going on to me. Interesting that it might be linked to reading…

    1. Jackie says:

      Joanna, I bet boyfriend is as fed up of watching films with you as my husband is with me ;-)

  36. Natalie says:

    I got 92% I am a reader(obviously). I’m not sure if I think reading has any impact on facial recognition. Do you have a bad memory in general? I’m just curious.

    1. Jackie says:

      Natalie, No. I have a very good memory. My problem is that I can’t tell facial features apart very well and so don’t recognise the differences in the first place. Feel free to ask any questions you like – it is good to let people know that these problems exist :-)

  37. Very intereting theory. I am usually alright at remembering a face – but I am terrible at remembering who the person is! I wish I could blame my reading on it, but I am not sure that I honestly can :-)

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