The Ability to Recognize Faces Might Be Genetic

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Some people have no trouble recognizing the face of someone they met once or twice. Others are face blind, a condition that can make different faces virtually indistinguishable from each other, resulting, in the extreme, in parents who can’t even pick their own kids out of a classroom of children. 

A new study suggests that an individual's capacity to memorize and recognize faces might be inherited, and is genetically different from other cognitive abilities. Researchers from Kings College London tested 2000 twins in the UK on their facial and object recognition abilities and their general cognitive skills, finding that being able to recognize faces is 61 percent genetic.

Cognitive abilities are already known to be highly genetic—that’s why we assume smart parents will have smart children. However, this study, published in PNAS, is the first to show how unique the genetic underpinnings of facial recognition are. The participants in this case were all 18- or 19-year-old twins, and 58 percent were women. In different tests, they were asked to memorize unfamiliar faces in photos (cropped to show no clothing or hair) and later, 3D models of cars to see if the ability to recognize faces was connected to the ability to recognize more general objects. The participants also took tests to measure their cognitive abilities, to see if high-functioning brains are just better at picking out faces. 

Identical twins had more similarity in their facial recognition ability than fraternal twins, suggesting that it's at least in part a genetic skill. Further genetic analysis revealed that while object recognition and facial recognition were mildly related, most of the ability to recognize faces is not connected to other cognitive abilities. It’s a unique inherited ability, separate from the cognitive skill of remembering what a particular car or building looks like. Considering the relatively large sample size of this study, this provides a new perspective on the influence of genetics on different aspects of cognition. As a less-lofty bonus, it also means that if you're bad at remembering people, you can blame it on your parents.