The speed of recognition of personally familiar faces

Perception. 2011;40(4):437-49. doi: 10.1068/p6794.


Despite the generally accepted notion that humans are very good and fast at recognising familiar individuals from their faces, the actual speed with which this fundamental brain function can be achieved remains largely unknown. Here, two groups of participants were required to respond by finger-lift when presented with either a photograph of a personally familiar face (classmate), or an unfamiliar one. This speeded manual go/no-go categorisation task revealed that personally familiar faces could be categorised as early as 380 ms after presentation, about 80 ms faster than unfamiliar faces. When response times were averaged across all 8 stimulus presentations, we found that minimum RTs for both familiar and unfamiliar face decisions were substantially lower (310 ms and 370 ms). Analyses confirmed that stimulus repetition enhanced the speed with which faces were categorised, irrespective of familiarity, and that repetition did not affect the observed benefit in RTS for familiar over unfamiliar faces. These data, representing the elapsed time from stimulus onset to motor output, put constraints on the time course of familiar face recognition in the human brain, which can be tracked more precisely by high temporal resolution electrophysiological measures.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Face*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Young Adult