Can’t quite figure out who that person is? Anne Strieber has written about how she has problems recognizing people ever since her stroke. A researcher who was trying to figure out how to get children from the “missing” posters on milk cartons and in grocery stores has figured out a way to remember faces better.

Photos of missing children posted at supermarket exits are one effort by law enforcement agencies and foundations to reunite children and families. But researcher James Michael Lampinen discovered that this effort may be futile, since few customers could identify the children’s faces upon leaving the store. Lampinen questioned 142 customers as they left a supermarket that posted photos of missing children. The vast majority of respondents called the problem of missing children important or extremely important, yet more than 70% did not look at the posters at all, and another 20% only looked briefly.

There are simple things people can do to improve their memory for the faces of missing children on posters AND the people we meet everyday whom we can’t quite “place.” Lampinen suggests that we learn to look at faces holistically. “One mistake we sometimes make is to try to memorize a face in the same way we memorize a string of words,” he says. “A string of words you can memorize one word at a time. With a face, you can’t just remember the eyes and then the nose and then the mouth. Rather, faces are best remembered as perceptual wholes. You have to take it all in.”

He suggests that people also make qualitative judgments about the person that relate to the appearance of someone famous or someone they already know well (ie. he has Mom’s eyebrows).

No matter what we look like, we all have the same basic facial expressions, and two of these?eyes that widen and nostrils that flare when we’re terrified and the nose crinkling in disgust when we smell something bad?seem to be universal (present in all cultures). This might be because they’re PRACTICAL: the wide open eyes and nostrils help us monitor our surroundings more carefully and discover where the danger lies, while our wrinkled nose keeps OUT smells. Eventually, these expressions also became a means of communication between one human and another, probably before language was invented.

In Science News, Amy Maxmen quotes Paul Ekman, who has studied facial expressions in 30 different countries, as saying, “The word for anger is not the same in Russian and in English, but the expression is.”

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