The findings of an Israeli researcher can help us to match names to faces and may lead to better facial recognition software to identify terrorists or criminals.

When we have trouble putting a name to a face, we usually attribute it to a slip of memory or a ‘senior moment.’

However, a specific area in our brains is responsible for processing information about human and animal faces, both how we recognize them and how we interpret facial expressions.

Dr. Galit Yovel of the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University (TAU) has established a ‘Face Lab’ to study the physiological mechanisms at work in the brain when we try to recognize the faces we meet every day.

Similar to faces, bodies are also processed by distinct brain areas. How we perceive faces is not totally intuitive, she says, and therefore raises the question of how this information is combined in our brains to understand how separate face and body areas generate a whole body-image impression.

In her research, Yovel has found that we are better able to recognize faces when we regularly see and interact with them in meaningful settings. It’s as though the face-processing sections of the brain recognize faces holistically.

The inability to recognize faces is more common than most people think. Yovel says that two percent of all people are born with ‘face blindness,’ scientifically known as prosopagnosia. She hopes her research will enable these people to train themselves, via software and other methods, to better differentiate one face from another – especially when the face is that of a loved one.

She is currently collaborating with computer scientists at TAU to explore new computational algorithms for facial recognition, to help computers do a better job of recognizing faces, and to help people who somehow lack this critical social skill.

Her most recent research on the brain’s face-processing mechanisms was published in the Journal of Neuroscience and Human Brain Mapping.