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Laura Germine, Brad Duchaine, Ken Nakayama; Hitting your peak at age 30: Behavioral evidence for extended development of face learning ability. Journal of Vision 2009;9(8):506. doi: 10.1167/9.8.506.
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Face recognition is important over the entire life span, from early infancy to old age. There is an implicit assumption in the literature, however, that perceptual abilities reach their peak at or before the end of adolescence. We investigated face recognition development using a variant of the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), where subjects are provided with easy practice trials to learn six new faces followed by more stringent tests of recognition under conditions of varied lighting, pose and image degradation (Duchaine and Nakayama, 2006). From the results of 47,000 volunteer subjects on the web, we traced performance, year by year, from early adolescence through middle age. Performance rises steeply post-puberty reaching peak just after age 30. After that, it gradually falls such that performance at age 65 is comparable to performance at age 16. In a second experiment, we administered tests of old/new face recognition and recognition of unfamiliar names. We found the same late performance peak for faces, whereas performance on the names test peaked early (around age 20). In a third and final experiment, we tested whether the late face recognition performance peak (1) is specific to recognition of upright faces and (2) can be explained by a peer-recognition advantage, using tests of upright adult's faces, upright children's faces, and inverted children's faces. A similar late performance peak was found for upright adult's faces and upright children's faces, with an earlier peak (early 20s) for performance on inverted children's faces. Our data provide the first behavioral evidence for late maturation of face processing. This is consistent with recent studies showing slower maturation of face specific areas in the brain (e.g. Golarai et al., 2007). It remains to be determined what causes this late peak and how specific it is to visual recognition of faces.
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