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Behavioural Neurology
Volume 24 (2011), Issue 4, Pages 285-298

The Executive Control of Face Memory

Steven Z. Rapcsak1,2,3 and Emily C. Edmonds3

1Department of Neurology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
2Neurology Section, Southern Arizona VA Health Care System, Tucson, AZ, USA
3Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

Received 31 October 2011; Accepted 31 October 2011

Copyright © 2011 Hindawi Publishing Corporation and the authors. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Patients with frontal lobe damage and cognitively normal elderly individuals demonstrate increased susceptibility to false facial recognition. In this paper we review neuropsychological evidence consistent with the notion that the common functional impairment underlying face memory distortions in both subject populations is a context recollection/source monitoring deficit, coupled with excessive reliance on relatively preserved facial familiarity signals in recognition decisions. In particular, we suggest that due to the breakdown of strategic memory retrieval, monitoring, and decision operations, individuals with frontal lobe impairment caused by focal damage or age-related functional decline do not have a reliable mechanism for attributing the experience of familiarity to the correct context or source. Memory illusions are mostly apparent under conditions of uncertainty when the face cue does not directly elicit relevant identity-specific contextual information, leaving the source of familiarity unspecified or ambiguous. Based on these findings, we propose that remembering faces is a constructive process that requires dynamic interactions between temporal lobe memory systems that operate in an automatic or bottom-up fashion and frontal executive systems that provide strategic top-down control of recollection. Executive memory control functions implemented by prefrontal cortex play a critical role in suppressing false facial recognition and related source memory misattributions.