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?).
Some of our face recognition prowess stems from a region in the brain called the fusiform face area, which seems to be specifically geared for the task. Damage there or in nearby brain areas can cause a condition known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Prosopagnosics can recognize everyday objects like “a cup or a telephone or a car,” Warburton says, “but they cannot recognize a face,” including those of loved ones or even themselves.
However beefy our fusiform face area might be, however, matching names to familiar faces is complicated further because these nuggets of knowledge reside in separate places. “We don't have a single filing cabinet in our brain that stores all the memories for all of the different types of information,” says Warburton. “The memory for a face will be stored in one particular brain region, whereas a name is stored in a completely different brain region. In order to put together those two pieces of information, the brain has to perform an integration, and sometimes that does fail us.”
How we usually encounter faces and names affects our memory, too. When we meet someone, we hear his or her name for perhaps a second. But as the conversation continues, we get to examine his or her face for minutes on end. “It's not a failure of memory but of attention,” says Warburton. “You haven't processed the name because this information is given very quickly.”
If our conversational partner's name were tattooed on his or her face, recalling that string of letters later on would be much easier. Alas, as Warburton points out, “we don’t walk around with name badges very often.”