“I Know the Face, but I Can’t Remember the Name”: Insight into Facial Recognition & Memory Loss in Older Adults

“I know the face, but I can’t remember the name,” is something we’ve all experienced before (i.e., recognition and remembrance of visual stimuli not syncing up with the related chunk of verbal memory). But where does this phenomenon originate in the brain? New research provides evidence that, for older adults, “motion cues” may play a large role in facial memory.

Specifically, researchers have found that motion cues enhance older adults’ perception and identification of novel facial data. What’s more, the way in which faces move (i.e., rigid versus non-rigid movements) can change the extent to which a face is remembered. Rigid motion refers to movement of the head rotating from left to right on the neck. Non-rigid movement, on the other hand, refers to facial movements like expressions—frowning, smiling, etc.—that don’t require the head to necessarily rotate. Both rigid and non-rigid movements are thought to differentially contribute to facial recognition and memory.

Rigid movement is thought to help individuals with remembrance of 3-D facial structure across multiple visual points—especially the memory of unfamiliar faces. Conversely, non-rigid movements may apply more to recognition of familiar faces and result from the accumulation of unique idiosyncratic data that the brain “collects” over a longer period of time.

Recently, researchers set out to investigate whether older adults would benefit from viewing static images of faces during the learning process. Their logic was that perhaps cognitive decline in later life would make dynamic facial recognition too much of a cognitive burden for older adults. Thus, showing static images might increase their facial recognition scores.

Results from their research both confirmed prior findings and extended knowledge in this area. Specifically, the authors found facial matching declined with age; this was exacerbated with novel views of the face for older adults. However, the authors also found that facial matching performance in older adults was enhanced when they were presented with dynamic (or moving) versus static presentations. These early findings suggest that utilizing a variety of different facial primes (e.g., both static photographs of faces and dynamic video images) may aid older adults with facial recognition and remembrance.

In sum, researchers have just begun to scratch the surface of how facial recognition changes over the course of a lifetime. More research is needed to fully understand how we “remember the face, but not the name” later in life.


Maguinness C and Newell FN. Motion facilitates face perception across changes in viewpoint and expression in older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. (2014). http://ex.doi.org/10.1037/a0038124


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