Don't I Know You? Wellesley Professor's New Study Shows Ability to Recognize Faces Is Inherited

Feb. 22, 2010

CONTACT: Arlie Corday; 781-283-3321

WELLESLEY, Mass.— Do you never forget a face? According to a new study, you can thank your parents for an advantage that comes in handy at your social and business gatherings. Jeremy Wilmer, assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College, led a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this month. The study shows that facial recognition is likely inherited from one’s parents, suggesting this ability can be passed down through families. Wilmer's study looked at identical and fraternal twins' ability to remember faces, allowing him and his colleagues to determine that the ability is based on genetics.

"Our paper reports a dramatic familial resemblance in face recognition ability that is due to one's genes," Jeremy Wilmer, psychology, reports.

"Our paper reports a dramatic familial resemblance in face recognition ability that is due predominantly to one's genes," Wilmer said. "We also find that one's ability to recognize faces does not relate to one's ability to recognize words or even art, suggesting that the genes influencing face recognition ability are different from those influencing other abilities."

Wilmer's study, "Human Face Recognition Ability Is Specific and Highly Heritable" is co-authored with colleagues at Harvard, University College London and several other institutions.

"Face recognition is a skill that we depend on daily, and considerable variability exists in the ability to recognize faces," Wilmer said. "Our results show that genetic differences are responsible for the great majority of the difference in face recognition ability between people."

The study has implications for further research into how genes affect thinking and behavior.

"We are excited about this finding because the brain mechanisms carrying out face recognition are fairly well understood so the high heritability of face recognition may provide a good opportunity to connect genes to brain mechanisms to behavior," Wilmer said.

Wilmer and his colleagues had 164 identical twins and 125 same-sex but fraternal twins take the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). The test measures the ability to learn six faces and then recognize them in different poses and lighting.

A sample of the face recognition test used in the study

"We examined how similar the scores for each of the twins were," Wilmer said. "The correlation for identical twins was 0.70, which demonstrates that twins sharing genes and family environment have very similar face recognition abilities. Because fraternal twins share the same family environment—just like identical twins—but share only 50 percent of their genes, a weaker correlation in fraternal twins would show that genes play a role in face recognition ability."

The fraternal twins' ability to remember faces was not just weaker; it was less than half the identical twins' correlation at only 0.29.

"That difference indicates that the similarity we found in identical twins was due to their shared genes rather than shared family environment," Wilmer said.

Wilmer invites people to take online tests at, where these studies continue.

"Our results do not rule out the possibility that extreme environments – for example malnutrition or social isolation – could hinder one's face recognition ability, or that one might improve at recognizing faces with an innovative training regimen," he said. "Indeed, it is well known that most of us have trouble recognizing the faces of those whose race or ethnicity we have little exposure to in our everyday lives. However, our research does suggest that given reasonable levels of exposure, most differences in face recognition ability are genetic in origin."

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 75 countries.