21 May 1998

Words On The Left, Faces On The Right

Some people never forget a face. Others can dredge up a name from the past with unnerving accuracy. Those who can do both are a lucky bunch indeed.

A new study suggests that these different modes of recall depend on where in the brain you are doing the remembering. If it's a face you're after, the right side is activated. Words, on the other hand, are recalled on the left. And interestingly, both regions become active when remembering an object with a name (such as a car or gun).

"So the left side seems to be active when you're using verbal codes, which you use for either words or nameable objects," says Steve Peterson, professor of neurology, neurobiology and radiology at Washington University School of Medicine and leader of the study. "The right side seems to be active when you're using non-verbal codes, such as visual features of unfamiliar faces or nameable objects."

Publishing their results in the May issue of Neuron, the researchers refute the standard notion that the left side of the brain is used for memorization and the right side for retrieval.

Rather, the process of recall is a more complex affair. Most experiments to date have involved imaging the brain at work while subjects tackled words or sentences. These tests, however, introduced the effects of non-verbal information.

"The main conclusion from this study is that regions in the frontal lobe can be affected by the type of material you are trying to memorize," says William Kelley, first author of the paper. "But an interesting tidbit is that performance was best with nameable objects, which activated both sides of the brain. So in a sense, two sides are better than one. If you use both sides, you're more likely to remember an object later."