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Face Recognition Ability Is Heritable

Recognizing faces is an important social skill, but not all of us are equally good at it. Some people are unable to recognize even their closest friends (a condition called prosopagnosia), while others have a near-photographic memory for large numbers of faces. In a recent study of twins, researchers at MIT and in Beijing, China, have shown that face recognition ability is heritable and that it is inherited separately from IQ. This finding plays into a long-standing debate on the nature of mind and intelligence. The prevailing “generalist” theory, upon which the concept of IQ is based, holds that if people are smart in one area they tend to be smart in other areas. So if you are good in math, you are also more likely to be good at literature and history. IQ is strongly influenced by heredity, suggesting the existence of "generalist genes" for cognition. Yet some cognitive abilities seem distinct from overall IQ, as happens when a person who is brilliant with numbers or music is tone-deaf socially or linguistically. Also, many specialized cognitive skills, including recognizing faces, appear to be localized to specialized brain regions. Such evidence supports a “modularity” hypothesis, in which the mind is like a Swiss Army knife--a general-purpose tool with special-purpose devices. “Our study provides the first evidence supporting the modularity hypothesis from a genetic perspective," said senior author Dr. Jia Liu, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Beijing Normal University. "That is, some cognitive abilities, like face recognition, are shaped by specialist genes rather than generalist genes." “Our finding may help explain why we see such disparities of cognitive abilities within the same person in certain heritable disorders,” added co-author Dr. Nancy Kanwisher of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. In dyslexia, for example, a person with normal IQ has deficits in reading, while in Williams syndrome, people have low IQs but excellent language skills. The results of the face recognition study were published in the January 26, 2010 issue of Current Biology. [Press release] [Current Biology article] [Related PNAS article]