How many faces do we know?

On average, people have 5000 faces in their heads. (Image: PeopleImages / iStock)

Friends, neighbors, colleagues, celebrities … Our lives and the media are teeming with faces. But how many of them do we store in our memory? Researchers have investigated this question through tests with volunteers and through extrapolations. According to the estimate, people can remember 5000 faces on average. However, there is a wide range of variation, the results show.

“Do I know this person or not?” As is well known, the correct assignment has an important meaning for our life. Some studies have dealt with the principles of human ability to recognize historical traits. However, the average storage volume of people for faces did not emerge from these studies. To allow at least a rough assessment of this aspect, the researchers led by Rob Jenkins from the University of York carried out tests with 25 volunteers.

The subjects should first systematically look at the faces of their living environment one after the other and enter the memories in tables on the computer. They supported categories: friends, colleagues, neighbors, employees in the supermarket … The test subjects had one hour to brainstorm. In a second hour the faces were on that the test subjects did not know personally but from the media. So you should list the faces of actors, politicians, etc. that came to mind. What they entered into the computer program was automatically saved at certain intervals.

1000 to 10,000 faces in the head

In both runs it became apparent that the study participants quickly thought of many people – but then the input rate decreased continuously. As the researchers explain, this decrease rate served as a basis for assessing how many faces the test subjects actually have in their minds. The results of recognition sets, in which pictures of prominent personalities were presented to the study participants, also served as an additional data basis for the estimate. The detection rate of these tests also gave indications of the entire scope of the facial memory, the researchers explain.

The bottom line was this: The average number of familiar faces is around 5000. However, this average is based on a large individual range. According to the researchers, particularly good facial markers have up to 10,000 likenesses in their heads – the rather weak ones only 1000. This range of variations seems to reflect that people have different talents to remember faces.

“There are differences, for example, in how much attention someone pays to faces and how efficient information storage is,” says Jenkins. “In addition, effects of the different social environment could be reflected in the results. Some participants may have grown up in more densely populated regions with more social input, ”explains the scientist, explaining the range of variation.

Source: University of York, technical article: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2018; doi: 10.1098 / rspb.2018.1319

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