Are you one of the lucky individuals that can remember the face of everyone you meet? If so, there is a good chance that you likely inherited this trait from one of your parents. In a recent study (Human Face Recognition Ability is Specific and Highly Heritable) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS 2010) researchers make the argument that the ability to remember faces is passed down through family genetics.
To conduct the study a group of scientists gathered 125 same-sex but fraternal twins, and 164 identical twins, and tasked them with taking the Cambridge Face Memory Test. The test measures the ability to learn six faces and then recognize those faces in different poses and lighting. The study showed that the identical twins’ ability to remember faces was much stronger than the fraternal twins’ ability. Based on this, it was concluded that the shared genes of the identical twins (and not the shared family environment) attributed to the identical twins’ ability to perform better than the fraternal twin group.
The study was led by Jeremy Wilmer, an assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College. In discussing his findings Wilmer stated, “Our results do not rule out the possibility that extreme environments – for example malnutrition or social isolation – could hinder one’s face recognition ability, or that one might improve at recognizing faces with an innovative training regimen. Indeed, it is well known that most of us have trouble recognizing the faces of those whose race or ethnicity we have little exposure to in our everyday lives. However, our research does suggest that given reasonable levels of exposure, most differences in face recognition ability are genetic in origin.”
The study opens the door for further research into how genes affect memory, thinking, and behavior. It also reminds us that those not endowed with these advantageous genetic traits still have the ability to improve our recall by engaging in brain training. If you are interested in learning more about this study in particular, you can do so by visiting testmybrain.org.