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Some Really Are Better with Names than Faces, Study Shows

August 10, 2005

Researchers at the University of Alberta have isolated a rare condition that prevents some children from recognizing a face they have seen before. They believe this conditions continues into adulthood.

“We believe this has never been discovered before,” said Carmen Rasmussen, a doctoral student in the U of A Department of Psychology. “And now we hope to be able to better diagnose people with this condition and develop interventions to help them.”

Rasmussen and her colleague, Dr. Glennis Liddell of the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, studied 14 children with Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD), a condition that makes it difficult to process nonverbal information. Children with NLD generally do well on most elements of aptitude tests except for those that involve visual spatial processing, such as recognizing and working with shapes.

“It can be difficult to recognize someone with NLD because sometimes the symptoms are not always obvious,” Rasmussen explained.

Rasmussen and Liddell put 14 children with NLD–12 boys and two girls–through a number of tests, including showing them patterns of dots and then showing them the same patterns a few minutes later to see if the children recognized them. The children did well at this task, but when a similar experiment was conducted using pictures of people’s faces, the children did poorly in recognizing the faces, especially shortly after they first saw them. They did better at recognizing faces the more time they had to process them. “It’s interesting that they had no problem remembering the dots but had significant difficulty remembering the faces,” Rasmussen said. “We do not know exactly why children with NLD have such difficulty with facial memory, so this study certainly opens up the door for further research.”

Although the researchers don’t know why the facial memory condition occurs, they believe it is related to a disorder in the right hemisphere of the brain. Their research is published this month in Learning Disabilities Research and Practice.

NLD affects less than one per cent of the population, appears to be congenital and lasts a lifetime. Rasmussen added that there are ways of teaching people with NLD in order to help them improve their visual spatial processing.

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