Skip to main content

The Importance of Facial Recognition


Facial Recognition, Identification, and Classification

To recognize an object certain steps must be taken. Information is received through the retina in the form of light. Visual processing occurs to organize the data by determining size, shape, contoured edges, and surface so that the information can be compared to other representations of objects in memory until recognition occurs (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008).

While first-order relational information is used in object recognition, second-order relational information is needed for facial recognition. If an individual only applied first-order relational information to facial recognition it would give him or her a basic idea of what features were there and where they were located in relationship to each other. This would not be enough to distinguish one person from another as everyone has the same basic features. Second-order relational information takes the information from first-order relational information and compares it to an average face based on information each individual has accumulated on faces (Diamond & Carey, 1986).

When it comes to facial recognition the most significant information is the second-order relational information. Unlike objects, that can be taken apart and still recognized, faces are stored in memory as a whole image. If only a partial image is available, or if the image is turned upside down, facial recognition becomes more difficult (Diamond & Carey, 1986). According to Vecera, n.d., the task of facial recognition is made more complicated by the emotion displayed by the individual. The brain must not only recognize the face itself but also take into consideration the emotional context. This added element brings interpersonal interaction between the person doing the viewing as well as the person being viewed in to play, which adds a social element to the process.

Facial recognition occurs in the right middle fusiform gyrus, which is a different part of the brain than where object recognition occurs. However, a study that was completed by Yale and Brown Universities has shown that the area used in facial recognition is also used when individuals become skilled at recognizing new objects. The implication from this study is that facial recognition could be a learned skill, not an instinctive brain function (Brown University, 1999).

Role of Concepts and Categories

A category involves a group of similar objects or ideas, and a concept is the intellectual depiction of a category (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008). According to Tarr and Cheng, 2003, most theories for object recognition are based on the assumption that there are different systems for recognizing objects and faces. One of the reasons this assumption is that objects can be categorized based on similar characteristics, and grouped together. Knowledge and experience plays a significant role in this process. What is familiar to one person may be less so to another. For instance, while most people seeing two monkeys would classify them only as monkeys, someone with more knowledge and experience may classify them as vervets and macaques.

According to the assumption of multiple recognition systems, each system is responsible for specific visual categories. The best known of these is the different systems used for facial versus non-facial objects. There is a certain level of difficulty in the process of differentiating between individual faces and social significance given to faces in general. Some of the reasons for this assumption are the preference for stimuli involving faces in infants, effects that are face specific when measuring behavior in visual processing, neurons, areas of the brain, and neural signals that are face selective, and differences in face and object recognition in brain damaged individuals (Tarr & Cheng, 2003).

The foundation of the arguments for multisystem memory could be deemed debatable. It assumes that some processes only apply to facial recognition when there could be other objects that have similar features. If the cognitive processes involved are not explicitly for facial recognition a single system may be all that is needed for recognition of both faces and objects. When other aspects are taken into consideration, like judgment, knowledge, and experience, the neural responses and behavior patterns for both facial and object recognition are similar (Tarr & Cheng, 2003).

Encoding and Retrieval Processes

Encoding is the process through which information is taken in and stored in long-term memory, which is a location for permanent storage, and the retrieval process involves reactivating those memories. There are many factors that can play a role in the encoding process. One of the most important of which is attention. When attention is focused on something, it is more likely to be retained in long-term memory. Repetition can also affect memory. Exposing someone to the same item on more than one occasion will increase the likelihood that it will be remembered. This can be done in one of two ways. Massed repetition involves showing the same item over and over again at the same time, while distributed repetition involves re-exposing someone to the same item at different times. While the first is completed more quickly, the second is more effective. In massed exposure the individual viewing the item pays less attention after the first viewing, so there is actually only one opportunity to encode the information in its entirety. Another factor is rehearsal, which is essential not only for keeping the information available in working memory but also for getting the information encoded into long-term memory (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008).

Encoding information about faces occurs in the right medial temporal lobe while being committed to memory, but recovery of new memories happens in another part of the brain. The right hippocampus and cortex are used when trying to remember new faces, but once again not during the retrieval process. Encoding facial memories occurs in the left prefrontal and left inferior temporal area of the brain, while facial recognition occurs in the right prefrontal and bilateral parietal and ventral occipital area of the brain (Haxby, Ungerleider, Horwitz, Maisog, Rapoport, & Grady, 1996).

Scroll to Continue

Possible Errors in Facial Recognition


Misidentification could occur because of a number of different reasons. One of these is unconscious transference. Basically, unconscious transference refers to being unable to distinguish between a person who is familiar in general and a person who is familiar for a specific reason. For example, someone who witnessed a crime may identify someone who looks familiar to him or her because he or she was seen at some point during the day as opposed to the person who committed the crime (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008).


Recognizing faces occurs in the fusiform face area. People who have damage in this area are unable to recognize themselves. This condition is known as prosopagnosia. For these, without this condition, one would think that self-knowledge would include not only the things we like, the things we do not like, and things we have accomplished over our lifetime, but also, knowledge of our facial features. However, studies have shown that knowledge of our own face is different from other types of knowledge. Evidence derived from brain imaging and case studies has shown that an area of the temporal lobe, known as the fusiform face area, is specified for facial recognition. This area shows more activity during brain imaging when an individual is attempting to recognize faces. The right prefrontal cortex has been shown to be more active when tasks involving the self, including self-recognition, are being performed (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler, 2008).


The ability to recognize faces is very important to many aspects of life. It not only helps us to recognize those close to us but also allows us to identify individuals we do not know so that we can be more aware of possible dangers. Facial recognition is a complex process that involves using knowledge and experience to set an average face to compare other faces too. Concepts and categories are used to assist in the object memory process as well as encoding information to long-term memory and retrieval of information from long-term memory. Different parts of the brain are used for storing and recovering facial recognition information. There are a number of errors that could occur during this process, including misidentification and self-recognition.


  • Brown University (1999). Brain Region Used In Face Recognition Is Active In New Object
  • Recognition. Science Daily. Retrieved from
  • Diamond, R., & Carey, S. (1986).Why faces are and are not special: An effect of expertise. Retrieved
  • from
  • Haxby, J. V., Ungerleider, L. G., Horwitz, B., Maisog, J. M., Rapoport, S. I.,
  • and Grady, C. L. (1996). Face encoding and recognition in the human brain. Retrieved from
  • Robinson-Riegler, G., & Robinson-Riegler, B. (2008). Cognitive psychology: Applying the
  • science of the mind (2nd ed.) [Electronic Version]. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon. Retrieved from the University of Phoenix PSYCH/560—Cognitive Psychology course website.
  • Tarr, M. J., Cheng, Y. D., (2003) Learning to see faces and objects. Retrieved from
  • Vecera, S. P., (n.d.) Affective, Cognitive, and Social Aspects of Face Recognition. Retrieved
  • from


Jennifer L Black (author) from Pittsburg, CA. on March 19, 2014:

Thank you. I am the same way when it comes to people. I often see someone and recognize that it is a face I know and then I have to figure out from where and then if I can attach a name to the face.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on March 19, 2014:

What an interesting hub on this subject. I think in pictures because i do not remember names but always someone's face. I know I've seen a face before but often do not immediately know from where or when. I,m sure that must be common? Great hub.

Related Articles