People wearing face-masks line up to buy supplies from a shop during the coronavirus outbreak in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, April 4, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

How many times have you remembered a face without being able to remember a person’s name or how we know them?

There are currently over 7 billion faces on planet earth and although we’ll only ever encounter a tiny fraction of them, we each have an ability to remember and recognise familiar faces – for an average person, as many as 5,000. This is an evolutionary skill hundreds of thousands of years in the making and most of us can recognise familiar faces with ease, even from low quality images, or from photos that are many years old.

Most of us take this ability to recognise familiar faces for granted – but when public health issues require us all to mask up, covering our chins, lips, cheeks and noses, what impact does that have on our innate facial recognition skills?

Recently conducted research tried to answer this question by comparing the impact of masks (which cover the lower portion of the face) with that of sunglasses (which cover the eye region). Despite face masks covering a large proportion of our faces, the research showed that people find it easier to recognise familiar faces behind masks than sunglasses.

In fact, familiar face identification ability was barely impaired when faces were masked. So why is that? Scientists believe that humans are born with an innate preference for face-like stimuli. We are so attuned to seeking out faces in our environment that we often pick out face-like patterns within objects or clouds – a phenomenon known as “face pareidolia”.

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