Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Recognition of Faces and Complex Objects in Younger and Older Adults

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Recognition of Faces and Complex Objects in Younger and Older Adults

Article excerpt

We examined whether (1) age-associated impairments in face recognition are specific to faces or also apply to within-category recognition of other objects and (2) age-related face recognition deficits are related to impairments in encoding second-order relations and holistic information. In Experiments 1 and 2, we found reliable age differences for recognition of faces, but not of objects. Moreover, older adults (OAs) and younger adults (YAs) displayed similar face inversion effects. In Experiment 3, unlike YAs, OAs did not show the expected decline in performance for recognition of composites (Young, Hellawell, & Hay, 1987). In Experiment 4, both OAs and YAs showed a whole/part advantage (Tanaka & Farah, 1993). Our results suggest that OAs have spared function for processing of second-order relations and holistic information. Possible explanations for the finding that OAs have greater difficulty recognizing faces than recognizing other objects are proposed.

Age-related declines in recognition memory for familiar and unfamiliar faces have been widely reported (e.g., Bartlett, Strater, & Fulton, 1991; Crook & Larrabee, 1992; Maylor & Valentine, 1992). These declines are characterized by a higher proportion of false alarms to nonfamiliar faces in healthy older individuals (reviewed by Searcy, Bartlett, & Memon, 1999). It is important to examine face recognition deficits in the elderly not only because they have an impact on the social and personal lives of older individuals, but also because they have implications in the management of older eyewitnesses to crime.

Several possible explanations have been proposed for age differences in face recognition. Some have been based on memory mechanisms and have included such factors as confusion due to the increased number of faces that have been memorized with age (Chaby, Jemel, George, Renault, & Fiori, 2001), deficits in recollection of contextual information (Bartlett & Fulton, 1991; Bartlett et al., 1991; Mandler, 1980; Searcy et al., 1999), impaired memory for novel visuospatial information (Searcy et al., 1999), and difficulties in carefully matching test pictures with representations stored in memory (Bartlett, Leslie, Tubbs, & Fulton, 1989). Other explanations have been based on encoding mechanisms and have included such factors as reduced contrast sensitivity in elderly subjects (Owsley, Sekuler, & Boldt, 1981) and a reduced ability to form distinctive representations effaces (Bartlett & Fulton, 1991). Still others have focused on the interaction between the encoding and the retrieval mechanisms involved in face recognition. These have included information loss at each successive step of a computation process, which predicts more pronounced deficits for more complex abilities (Cerella, 1990; Maylor & Valentine, 1992; Salthouse, 1996a, 1996b), deficits at each stage of the face recognition process (Maylor, 1990), and an increased need for cognitive resources during performance of complex tasks, which results in higher activation of prefrontal areas (Grady, 2002).

Although support for some of these hypotheses has been reported, the interpretations proposed often have overlooked evidence that is well established in the face recognition literature. For example, it has been suggested that older adults have difficulties recognizing faces because of the reduction in contrast sensitivity associated with aging. In agreement with this hypothesis, Owsley, Sekuler, and Boldt (1981) have shown that increasing the contrast effaces can improve face recognition in this population. However, studies conducted with younger adults have shown that face recognition depends on a critical band of spatial frequencies in the middle range (reviewed by Costen, Parker, & Craw, 1996) for which sensitivity is very high and the perception of which should be least affected by low-contrast vision. Hence, although decreased contrast sensitivity may contribute to impairments in face recognition in elderly individuals, other factors must also be involved. …

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