You look familiar. Now scientists know why.

The brain has an amazing capacity for recognizing faces. It can identify a face in a few thousandths of a second, form a first impression of its owner and retain the memory for decades.

Central to these abilities is a longstanding puzzle: how the image of a face is encoded by the brain. Two Caltech biologists, Le Chang and Doris Y. Tsao, reported in Thursday’s issue of Cell that they have deciphered the code of how faces are recognized.

Their experiments were based on electrical recordings from face cells, the name given to neurons that respond with a burst of electric signals when an image of a face is presented to the retina.

By noting how face cells in macaque monkeys responded to manipulated photos of some 2,000 human faces, the Caltech team figured out exactly what aspects of the faces triggered the cells and how the features of the face were being encoded. The monkey face recognition system seems to be very similar to that of humans.