You spot someone across a room; they’re staring at you and want to say hi. You know you must know them from somewhere, but you don’t recognise their face. They start talking to you and you’re desperately hoping for some contextual information, anything that can help you remember who this person is. You feel awful, as if this failure to remember is some terrible reflection of your own shitty personality.
I’m here to tell you it’s OK, and you’re not alone. Some people just find it harder than others to recognise and remember faces, whether they’re celebrities or people they actually know. According to Roberta Daini, a neuropsychology professor at the University of Milano-Bicocca, people often underestimate how difficult it is for our brains to perceive an object, animal or person because the mechanism is so seamless. “You might think that, because we open our eyes and immediately recognise things, perception is a simple process, but it’s actually very complex,” she says.
That’s especially true for distinguishing faces, which share so many characteristics and are therefore harder for our brains to distinguish than objects. In fact, studies have shown that we recognise faces through what Daini defines as a “holistic, global and configural” process. In other words, faces are so similar that we can only distinguish them by analysing differences like eye colour or lip shape – like recognising objects by looking at their smaller constituent parts (see: the leg of a table or the pattern of a sweater).