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More than Meets the Eye

New research suggests failure to retrieve relevant details from memory may underlie face blindness
July 13, 2020

The ability to recognize faces is a complex neurocognitive skill with important social implications. The traditional view of this face blindness disorder—prosopagnosia in scientific parlance—has held that it arises from deficits in visual perception. Under that view, individuals with face blindness are unable to visually distinguish the features of faces presented side by side and unable to determine whether the faces are the same or not.

Now a new study led by researchers at Harvard Medical School and the VA Boston Healthcare System shows that face blindness may arise from deficits beyond visual perception and appears to involve glitches in retrieving various contextual cues from memory. 

The results, published July 5 ahead of print in the journal Cortex, suggest that the traditional view of face blindness as a purely visual perceptual disorder may be reductive, the researchers said. Further, they reveal that successful facial recognition requires recollection, or the recall of relevant contextual details about a person, such as their name or profession.