identity memory

Memory FAQs

Is there such a thing as a photographic memory?

While one cannot completely discount the possibility of a photographic memory, since there have been some very rare individuals with truly extraordinary powers of memory, those examples of outstanding memory that have been studied have all turned out to be due to the use of powerful memory strategies.

The lesson we can draw from most examples of "photographic memory" is that there are truly effective memory strategies, and anyone who wants to put in the requisite time and energy can achieve such a powerful memory. However, the point that most so-called "memory trainers" don't make, is that to achieve such levels of mastery requires a great deal of practice. Moreover, their accomplishments are specific to the memory task they have practiced. That is, achieving a high level of skill at remembering names doesn't mean you'll be any better at remembering things you've read, or things you have to do.

Practicing a particular strategy leads to skill at that strategy, it doesn't lead to a "good memory". There is no such thing as a good memory, and no such thing as a bad one. You may be good at remembering some things, and poor at remembering others.

It should be noted I am only talking here of people with no brain abnormalities. It does seem that particular brain abnormalities can lead to ways of processing information that are dramatically different from the normal (see the case of Kim Peek). However, it may well be that such a memory limits understanding.

References

Ericsson, K.A. (1985). Memory skill. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 39, 188-231.

Higbee, Kenneth L. Your memory. How it works and how to improve it. NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.

Thompson, C. P., Cowan, T.M. & Frieman, J. Memory search by a memorist. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., 1993.

Will memorizing lists and speeches improve my memory?

No. Many "memory trainers" tell you memory is like a muscle, and if you exercise it it will become stronger. They tell you that memorizing things will make your memory better. However, you can memorize until you're blue in the face, and this won't give you a better memory. Indeed, if you set aside time each day for memorizing, you will usually find that eventually it takes you longer to memorize information (boredom probably!)1.

The value of memory "exercise" lies in what you're doing. If you're simply learning by rote repetition, this does nothing, because memory is not a muscle. If you're using a memory strategy of some kind, then of course practice will improve your skill at that strategy. Hence, if you spend an hour every day on memorizing using a mnemonic strategy (say the method of loci, or the pegword strategy), you will indeed become better at using that strategy. In fact, it takes a great deal of practice before you can effectively use most of these strategies.

However, this will not "improve your memory", because memory is not a thing. What it does, is make you better at that particular strategy, and only that strategy.

References

Herrmann, D.J. & Searleman, A. 1990. The new multimodal approach to memory improvement. In G. Bower (ed.) Advances in Learning and Motivation, New York: Academic Press.

1. Higbee, Kenneth L. Your memory. How it works and how to improve it. NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.

I've read that people only use 10% of their brain. Is this true?

This, or variants of this, are repeated in a great many popular books about the brain and memory. Quite where this idea started I have no idea. It is not at all clear what it means, or what evidence exists for such a statement. The brain contains billions of neurons and I doubt many of them are sitting around just basking in the oxygen, waiting for you to come up with an exciting new strategy that will suddenly trigger them into action, after decades of inertness.

The brain is the most active part of our body, and its activity derives from the connections between those billions of neurons. Memory and thought are contained in patterns of activation, not in single neurons. The essence of how the brain works is that the neurons are all connected. The brain is a network. How can a network work if a significant portion of it isn't working?

The key to improving your mental skills is in making good connections. How can anyone say your connections are only 10% of what they could be? And what on earth would that mean?

The "statistic" is meaningless. What can be said, truthfully, is that we can all improve the organization of our memories.

I seem to have more trouble remembering words and names I know perfectly well. Am I getting Alzheimer's?

As we get older, it is normal to experience more frequent memory blocks for names of objects and people.Not, interestingly enough, for abstract words.

When you were in your twenties, you almost certainly didn’t have as many memory blocks — occasions when something is ‘on the tip of my tongue’. But this is not because you were less forgetful then. It is because memory blocks occur when information has not been retrieved for a long time. Obviously, the older you become, the more information there will be in your memory that has not been recalled for a long time. Hence, more memory blocks.

Related article

Why do I have so much trouble remembering people's names?

The principal reason for the common tendency to forget people's names is very simple - we usually don't pay enough attention when we hear them. But why are names so much harder than other things to remember? Or do they simply appear so, because we feel so bad when we forget a name?

Well, no, personal names are harder to remember than many other types of information, and the reason is simple - connection, or the lack of it. The main tenet of memory is that well-connected information is easy to remember. The more connections a piece of information has, the more likely you are to find it. But what connections does a name have with a person? For the most part, names are arbitrary.

Because the information itself isn't meaningful, you have to make a special effort to create a meaningful connection for it.

Related article

Does playing tapes while you're asleep help you learn?

Not really.

There are circumstances in which learning can occur while you're asleep, but it's a far cry from the science-fiction idea of achieving native fluency in a foreign language after a few nights or a few hours in the sleep lab.

  • The information to be learned cannot require understanding - it is thus useful for memorizing rather than true learning.
  • You must be in the right stage of sleep - a light, drowsy state.
  • The 'sleep learning' must augment ordinary learning, it can't take the place of it. That is, the exact information must also be presented while you are awake and attending to it.

References

Baddeley, Alan.Your memory: A user’s guide. (2nd ed.) London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Higbee, Kenneth L. Your memory. How it works and how to improve it. NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.

Do mnemonic strategies really work?

Certainly. Mnemonic strategies work. However, for the most part they are strategies that require a great deal of practice to master, and it is arguable whether the tasks they are suited for are really worth such an effort. For example, to go to the trouble of using the method of loci simply to save yourself the effort of writing a shopping list is fairly pointless. However, if you have a professional need to remember lots of names, mastering the face-name association strategy is probably worth the (not inconsiderable) effort.

Related article

It's said that everything we've ever experienced is recorded somewhere in our brain. Is this true?

No.The origin of this belief seems to lie in the work done by a Canadian surgeon, Wilder Penfield, in the 1950s. Taking advantage of the fact that the brain itself has no sensors for pain, Penfield (with the patients' consent) used the opportunity granted by operations on the brain to investigate the storage of memory. While the brain was exposed, and the patients fully conscious, Penfield stimulated different parts of the cortex electrically. In most cases, the patients had no particular sensation or experience to report, but occasionally they would claim to re-experience very vivid scenes from their past.

This was taken by many at the time to demonstrate that memory works like a camera - that every detail is experienced, and is faithfully recorded in the brain, and nothing is truly lost. However, it now seems clear that the interpretation of these results was simplistic.

Not only did such triggered memories occur in only 40 of 520 patients, but the vividness and specificity of such memories was overstated. It seems rather, from subsequent studies, that such memories are more like dreams - generalized experiences with no particular spatio-temporal context.

Moreover, if the same area was stimulated on a different occasion, a different memory would be elicited, and sometimes the same memories were generated by stimulating different areas. Nor, it must be said, was any attempt made to test the veracity of these 'memories'.

References

Greenfield, Susan. The human brain: A guided tour. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.

Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. NY: Basic Books, 1996.

Why do we forget?

Forgetting, it can be argued, is adaptive. The ability to abstract general rules from specific instances is far more useful than the ability to remember every specific detail, and the one seems to preclude the other1.

As yet there is no evidence that information stored in memory can actually disappear (except of course when the brain is physically damaged). However, when information is put into the long-term memory store, it passes through what is called "working memory". Information can be lost in working memory. If the information doesn't make it through the encoding process (when it is "in" working memory), then it will not enter memory, therefore you cannot "remember" it - although, because of other information encoded at the time, you may have a vague feeling that such information exists.

Forgetting, then, occurs because:

  • it was never properly encoded into memory in the first place, or
  • you can't find it

A failure to find a specific memory generally occurs because of interference from other memories.

1. Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. NY: Basic Books, 1996.

Am I too old to learn?

No.

It is true that memory performance begins to decline after the mid-forties, but the effects of age on memory are complex, as memory itself is complex. It is not true that a particular seventy-year-old necessarily has a 'worse' memory than his thirty-year-old grandson. It is almost certainly true that they each have particular memory tasks at which they are better than the other. It is probably true that the grandson remembers most information with less effort than his grandfather. It is not true that the grandfather can't match his grandson's performance with more effort - or more cunning. If one is skilled at specific memory strategies, and the other isn't, this is probably more important than any age differences.

Think of veteran marathon runners. There’s no way that they’re going to match the speed of a marathon runner in their twenties. But most people couldn’t run a marathon at all (without training). Maybe older adults can’t match the performance of younger adults when both receive the same training. But why should that matter? It doesn’t mean the older adult can’t achieve considerable memory improvement with instruction tailored to their needs, and more extensive practice.

For example, our memory for nonverbal information seems to decline faster than verbal information as we get older. Therefore, memory strategies involving visual imagery are typically less useful for older adults.

Older adults have a big advantage to offset the slowness that comes with increasing age. Experience. A good memory is an organized memory, is a richly connected memory. With a wealth of experience, you have the potential for many connections. With the right strategies, such rich connectivity can help your remembering.

References

Baddeley, Alan.Your memory: A user’s guide. (2nd ed.) London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Identity memory

Recognizing a person is a complex matter.

There are several different types of memory code for identity information. These include:

  • structural codes
  • semantic codes
  • visually-derived semantic codes
  • name codes

The interesting thing about these different memory codes is that it appears that they can only be accessed in a particular order. This is part of the reason names are so much harder to recall - they're at the end of the chain.

Improving your memory for people requires you to improve the connections between these memory codes.

Difficulty in remembering people’s names is one of the most common memory tasks that people wish to be better at. And the reason for this is not that their memory is poor, but because it is so embarrassing when their memory lets them down.

This isn’t just an issue at a personal level. It’s a particular issue for anyone who has to deal with a lot of people, many of whom they will see at infrequent intervals. Nothing makes a person — a client, a customer, a student — feel more valued than being remembered.

But we have, in fact, a remarkably good memory for other people’s faces. Think about the ease with which you distinguish between hundreds, even thousands, of human faces, and then think about how hard it is to distinguish between the faces of birds, or dogs, or monkeys. This is not because human faces are any more distinctive than the faces of other animals. Think about how much harder it is for you to distinguish between the faces of people of an unfamiliar racial type.

Contrary to what many European-descended people believe, Asian faces are no less distinctive than European faces, but the differences between any human face are sufficiently subtle that they take a great deal of experience to learn. The importance of learning these subtle differences is shown in the way new babies focus on faces, and prefer them to other objects.

Our memory for other people is of course more than a memory for faces, although that part probably has the most impressive capacity. We also remember people’s names and various biographical details. We can recognize people by hearing their voice, at a distance by seeing their shape or the way that they move, or even by their clothing.

But it’s faces that give certainty.

Many years ago, when I was in my second year at university, I left the student cafeteria and nearly bumped into a young woman in a white lab coat. I murmured some sort of apology and started to move on, and she said my name. I stared at her blankly. She said, ‘You don’t recognize me, do you?’ Even with this prompt, I didn’t immediately get it. I still remember staring at her unfamiliar face, and then … the features seemed to shift under my eyes. It was very weird. Suddenly I knew her. I was mortified, and stunned. I hadn’t seen her in a year, but we’d been best friends all through high school. How could I not immediately recognize her?

Identity information is complex

Identity information is encoded in memory in quite complex ways. To more effectively use those codes, to improve your memory for names, faces, and important personal details, it helps to understand how identity information is recorded in memory.

There are three ways we can “recognize” a person:

  • we might recognize them as having been seen before, without recalling anything about them
  • we might identify them as a particular person, without recalling their name (“that’s a friend of my son’s”)
  • we might identify them by name

If you think about it you will realize that you never, ever, recall information about a person without recognizing them as familiar. While this sounds terribly obvious, there is actually a clinical condition (the Capgras delusion) whereby a person, while recognizing the people around them, believes they have been replaced by doubles (imposters, robots, aliens). This is simply because the normal accompanying feeling of familiarity is missing.

You also never remember a person’s name without knowing who she is. This is because names are held in a separate place to biographical details, and can only be accessed through those details.

Identity codes and how they are structured in memory

Why is there this hierarchy? Why can we only access names through biographical information? Because identity information is ordered. Your memory for a person is not like this:

diagram

But like this:

diagram

In other words, there are several different kinds of identity information, and they are clustered according to type, and can in fact only be accessed in a particular order.

Of the various identity codes (bits of encoded identity information), there are three kinds that are important for recognizing a person:

  • structural codes (physical features)
  • semantic codes (biographical details, e.g., occupation, marital status, address)
  • name codes

There is a fourth type of code that is useful for remembering unfamiliar faces:

  • visually-derived semantic codes (e.g., age, gender, attributions such as “he looks honest/intelligent/sly”)

Semantic codes that are visually derived have an advantage over biographical codes, because the link with the structural code is meaningful and thus strong, whereas the connection between the structural codes and biographical details is entirely arbitrary. To say someone looks like a fox connects meaningfully with the person’s facial features, whereas to say that someone is a lawyer has no particular connection with the person’s face (to say someone looks like a lawyer would of course be meaningfully connected).

Visually-derived semantic codes are useful for remembering new faces because the link with the physical features of the face is strong and meaningful.

However you cannot identify a person without reference to the biographical codes.

The interesting aspect of these different codes is that you can only access them in a particular order:

diagram

When you recognize a face as familiar but can’t recall anything about the person, the physical features have failed to trigger the biographical details. When you identify a person by recalling details about them, but can’t recall their name, the biographical information has failed to trigger the name.

Whether the name is recalled therefore depends on the strength of the connection between the biographical details and the name.

In other words, to improve your memory for a person’s identity, you must strengthen the link between the physical features and the biographical information. To improve your memory for the person’s name, you must strengthen the link between the biographical information and the name.

 

Note: A fascinating account of what it is like to be face-blind, from a person with the condition, can be found at: http://www.choisser.com/faceblind/

Face-name association

Creating a face-name association

  • Select a distinctive feature of the face (nose).
  • Select a word or phrase that sounds like the name (con rat for Conrad).
  • Create an interactive image linking the distinctive feature with the keyword(s) (a man in a prisoner’s uniform — con — rides a rat that slides down the nose).

To remember the name on seeing the face again, you must:

  • Identify the distinctive feature that you used when encoding (nose).
  • Use that feature to help you retrieve the interactive image (a con riding a rat sliding down a nose).
  • Derive the keyword(s) from the image (con rat).
  • Use the keyword to help you retrieve the name (Conrad).

Drawbacks to the face-name association method

To use the face-name association method in a social situation requires a great deal of practice.

The other drawback to this method is that it requires you to select a distinctive feature. This is not always easy, particularly when you’re distracted and time is short (which is usually the case when you’re being introduced to someone). But finding a distinctive feature is absolutely crucial to the strategy’s effectiveness.

Face-name association only works well to the extent that the selected distinctive feature is an effective cue.

References: 

McCarty, D.L. 1980. Investigation of a visual imagery mnemonic device for acquiring face-name associations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 145-155.

Remembering names & faces

There are two well-established strategies for remembering people’s names. The simplest basically involves paying attention. Most of the time our memory for someone’s name fails because we never created an effective memory code for it.

An easy strategy for improving your memory for names

We can dramatically improve our memory for names simply by:

  • paying attention to the information
  • elaborating the information (e.g., “Everett? Is that with two t’s?”; “Rankin? Any relation to the writer?”; “Nielson? What nationality is that?”)
  • repeating the information at appropriate times.

The mnemonic strategy for remembering names and faces

The other method, of proven effectiveness but considerably more complicated, is a mnemonic strategy called the face-name association method.

You can find details of this strategy in most memory-improvement books, including my own. It is one of the most widely known and used mnemonic strategies, and it is undoubtedly effective when done properly. Like all mnemonic strategies however, it requires considerable effort to master. And as with most mnemonic strategies, imagery is the cornerstone. However, physical features are not necessarily the best means of categorizing a face.

What research tells us

Specific physical features (such as size of nose) are of less value in helping us remember a person than more global physical features (such as heaviness) or personality judgments (such as friendliness, confidence, intelligence). Rather than concentrating on specific features, we’d be better occupied in asking ourselves this sort of question: “Would I buy a used car from this person?”

However, searching for a distinctive feature (as opposed to answering a question about a specific feature, such as “does he have a big nose?”) is as effective as making a personality judgment. It seems clear that it is the thinking that is so important.

To remember better, think about what you want to remember.

Specifically, make a judgment (“she looks like a lawyer”), or a connection (“she’s got a nose like Barbara Streisand”). The connection can be a visual image, as in the face-name association strategy.

References: 

Winograd, E. 1978. Encoding operations which facilitate memory for faces across the life span. In M.M. Gruneberg, P.E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (eds.) Practical aspects of memory. London: Academic Press.

Why we remember more from young adulthood than from any other period

Young archaeologists

Autobiographical memory is an interesting memory domain, given its inextricable association with identity. One particularly fascinating aspect of it is its unevenness - why do we remember so little from the first years of life ('childhood amnesia'), why do we remember some periods of our life so much more vividly than others? There are obvious answers (well, nothing interesting happened in those other times), but the obvious is not always correct. Intriguing, then, to read about a new study that links those memorable periods to self-identity.

Self-imagination helps memory in both healthy and memory-impaired

A small study involving patients with TBI has found that the best learning strategies are ones that call on the self-schema rather than episodic memory, and the best involves self-imagination.

Sometime ago, I reported on a study showing that older adults could improve their memory for a future task (remembering to regularly test their blood sugar) by picturing themselves going through the process. Imagination has been shown to be a useful strategy in improving memory (and also motor skills). A new study extends and confirms previous findings, by testing free recall and comparing self-imagination to more traditional strategies.

The study involved 15 patients with acquired brain injury who had impaired memory and 15 healthy controls. Participants memorized five lists of 24 adjectives that described personality traits, using a different strategy for each list. The five strategies were:

  • think of a word that rhymes with the trait (baseline),
  • think of a definition for the trait (semantic elaboration),
  • think about how the trait describes you (semantic self-referential processing),
  • think of a time when you acted out the trait (episodic self-referential processing), or
  • imagine acting out the trait (self-imagining).

For both groups, self-imagination produced the highest rates of free recall of the list (an average of 9.3 for the memory-impaired, compared to 3.2 using the baseline strategy; 8.1 vs 3.2 for the controls — note that the controls were given all 24 items in one list, while the memory-impaired were given 4 lists of 6 items).

Additionally, those with impaired memory did better using semantic self-referential processing than episodic self-referential processing (7.3 vs 5.7). In contrast, the controls did much the same in both conditions. This adds to the evidence that patients with brain injury often have a particular problem with episodic memory (knowledge about specific events). Episodic memory is also particularly affected in Alzheimer’s, as well as in normal aging and depression.

It’s also worth noting that all the strategies that involved the self were more effective than the two strategies that didn’t, for both groups (also, semantic elaboration was better than the baseline strategy).

The researchers suggest self-imagination (and semantic self-referential processing) might be of particular benefit for memory-impaired patients, by encouraging them to use information they can more easily access (information about their own personality traits, identity roles, and lifetime periods — what is termed the self-schema), and that future research should explore ways in which self-imagination could be used to support everyday memory tasks, such as learning new skills and remembering recent events.

Autism therapy can normalize face processing

A small study shows that an intensive program to help young children with autism not only improves cognition and behavior, but can also normalize brain activity for face processing.

The importance of early diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder has been highlighted by a recent study demonstrating the value of an educational program for toddlers with ASD.

The study involved 48 toddlers (18-30 months) diagnosed with autism and age-matched normally developing controls. Those with ASD were randomly assigned to participate in a two-year program called the Early Start Denver Model, or a standard community program.

The ESDM program involved two-hour sessions by trained therapists twice a day, five days every week. Parent training also enabled ESDM strategies to be used during daily activities. The program emphasizes interpersonal exchange, social attention, and shared engagement. It also includes training in face recognition, using individualized booklets of color photos of the faces of four familiar people.

The community program involved evaluation and advice, annual follow-up sessions, programs at Birth-to-Three centers and individual speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and/or applied behavior analysis treatments.

All of those in the ESDM program were still participating at the end of the two years, compared to 88% of the community program participants.

At the end of the program, children were assessed on various cognitive and behavioral measures, as well as brain activity.

Compared with children who participated in the community program, children who received ESDM showed significant improvements in IQ, language, adaptive behavior, and autism diagnosis. Average verbal IQ for the ESDM group was 95 compared to an average 75 for the community group, and 93 vs 80 for nonverbal IQ. These are dramatically large differences, although it must be noted that individual variability was high.

Moreover, for the ESDM group, brain activity in response to faces was similar to that of normally-developing children, while the community group showed the pattern typical of autism (greater activity in response to objects compared to faces). This was associated with improvements in social behavior.

Again, there were significant individual differences. Specifically, 73% of the ESDM group, 53% of the control group, and 29% of the community group, showed a pattern of faster response to faces. (Bear in mind, re the control group, that these children are all still quite young.) It should also be borne in mind that it was difficult to get usable EEG data from many of the children with ASD — these results come from only 60% of the children with ASD.

Nevertheless, the findings are encouraging for parents looking to help their children.

It should also be noted that, although obviously earlier is better, the findings don’t rule out benefits for older children or even adults. Relatively brief targeted training in face recognition has been shown to affect brain activity patterns in adults with ASD.

Reference: 

[3123] Dawson, G., Jones E. J. H., Merkle K., Venema K., Lowy R., Faja S., et al. (2012).  Early Behavioral Intervention Is Associated With Normalized Brain Activity in Young Children With Autism. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 51(11), 1150 - 1159.

Negative gossip sharpens attention

Faces of people about whom something negative was known were perceived more quickly than faces of people about whom nothing, or something positive or neutral, was known.

Here’s a perception study with an intriguing twist. In my recent round-up of perception news I spoke of how images with people in them were more memorable, and of how some images ‘jump out’ at you. This study showed different images to each participant’s left and right eye at the same time, creating a contest between them. The amount of time it takes the participant to report seeing each image indicates the relative priority granted by the brain.

So, 66 college students were shown faces of people, and told something ‘gossipy’ about each one. The gossip could be negative, positive or neutral — for example, the person “threw a chair at a classmate”; “helped an elderly woman with her groceries”; “passed a man on the street.” These faces were then shown to one eye while the other eye saw a picture of a house.

The students had to press one button when they could see a face and another when they saw a house. As a control, some faces were used that the students had never seen. The students took the same length of time to register seeing the unknown faces and those about which they had been told neutral or positive information, but pictures of people about whom they had heard negative information registered around half a second quicker, and were looked at for longer.

A second experiment confirmed the findings and showed that subjects saw the faces linked to negative gossip for longer periods than faces about whom they had heard about upsetting personal experiences.

Reference: 

[2283] Anderson, E., Siegel E. H., Bliss-Moreau E., & Barrett L. F. (2011).  The Visual Impact of Gossip. Science. 332(6036), 1446 - 1448.

Simple training helps infants maintain ability to distinguish other-race faces

New research confirms the role of experience in the other race effect, and shows how easily the problem in discriminating faces belonging to other races might be prevented.

Our common difficulty in recognizing faces that belong to races other than our own (or more specifically, those we have less experience of) is known as the Other Race Effect. Previous research has revealed that six-month-old babies show no signs of this bias, but by nine months, their ability to recognize faces is reduced to those races they see around them.

Now, an intriguing study has looked into whether infants can be trained in such a way that they can maintain the ability to process other-race faces. The study involved 32 six-month-old Caucasian infants, who were shown picture books that contained either Chinese (training group) or Caucasian (control group) faces. There were eight different books, each containing either six female faces or six male faces (with names). Parents were asked to present the pictures in the book to their child for 2–3 minutes every day for 1 week, then every other day for the next week, and then less frequently (approximately once every 6 days) following a fixed schedule of exposures during the 3-month period (equating to approximately 70 minutes of exposure overall).

When tested at nine months, there were significant differences between the two groups that indicated that the group who trained on the Chinese faces had maintained their ability to discriminate Chinese faces, while those who had trained on the Caucasian faces had lost it (specifically, they showed no preference for novel or familiar faces, treating them both the same).

It’s worth noting that the babies generalized from the training pictures, all of which showed the faces in the same “passport photo” type pose, to a different orientation (three-quarter pose) during test trials. This finding indicates that infants were actually learning the face, not simply an image.

Better reading may mean poorer face recognition

Evidence that illiterates use a brain region involved in reading for face processing to a greater extent than readers do, suggests that reading may have hijacked the network used for object recognition.

An imaging study of 10 illiterates, 22 people who learned to read as adults and 31 who did so as children, has confirmed that the visual word form area (involved in linking sounds with written symbols) showed more activation in better readers, although everyone had similar levels of activation in that area when listening to spoken sentences. More importantly, it also revealed that this area was much less active among the better readers when they were looking at pictures of faces.

Other changes in activation patterns were also evident (for example, readers showed greater activation in the planum temporal in response to spoken speech), and most of the changes occurred even among those who acquired literacy in adulthood — showing that the brain re-structuring doesn’t depend on a particular time-window.

The finding of competition between face and word processing is consistent with the researcher’s theory that reading may have hijacked a neural network used to help us visually track animals, and raises the intriguing possibility that our face-perception abilities suffer in proportion to our reading skills.

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