Do you have a trustworthy nose?

University of Western Australia researchers’ model of face gender published in PLoS ONE

Garland, Carys Face ‘model’ accurately weighs gender points. ScienceNetwork WA. July 6th 2014.

The mathematical model of face gender that these UWA researchers have come up with seems like a sensible enough idea to me (and who am I to criticise?) but I’m very doubtful of just about everything stated about face gender and its relation to autism that is written in the Science Network article.

Gilani SZ, Rooney K, Shafait F, Walters M, Mian A (2014) Geometric Facial Gender Scoring: Objectivity of Perception. PLoS ONE 9(6): e99483. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099483


Personification at the heart of imagination in stories loved by children

The Thomas the Tank Engine stories, with railway stock who have faces and voices and dialogue and relationships and dramas, and the Wizard of Oz story, with a tin-man and a living scarecrow and curmudgeonly apple trees are just two examples of classic children’s fiction which translated very successfully to popular family screen entertainment, and both are full of objects that are personified. Many synaesthetes like myself have naturally and mysteriously developed conceptions of letters of the alphabet and numbers as having personal characteristics such as genders and personalities, as well as individual and specific colours. These synaesthetic ways of thinking formed in childhood and has become embedded in the structure of the brain. It is possible that all people once experienced synaesthetic thinking as children, but synaptic pruning did away with all that fanciful nonsense for most of us. Perhaps we were all personifying synaesthetes when we were little kids, and perhaps that explains why object personification pops up so often in children’s entertainment. To complement the winter school holidays one of our TV channels is broadcasting The Wizard of Oz for the umpteenth time. I’m not sure if I’ve ever sat and viewed the whole thing and forgotten half of it, but there was some familiarity in the deep and gruff sound of the voice of one of the apple trees. Could any grown tree have a voice that is not dark and resonant? I doubt it. Irrational as it is, object personification operates according to psychological rules and relationships, and big dark brown things tend to have deep voices.

I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that popular movies are full of psychology, and the Wizard of Oz is as good an example as any. There’s the object personification in many of the characters. There’s also some interesting psychology in the way that Dorothy feels that she has known her three strange new friends for a long time, but also logically knows that can’t be true (the story is set in a dream with bizarre characters which Dorothy’s sleeping mind has created out of memories of real people in Dorothy’s real life). “Oh, you’re the best friends anybody ever had. And it’s funny, but I feel as if I’d known you all the time, but I couldn’t have, could I?” Would face processing researchers call that “implicit familiarity” or “covert recognition”? It is actually person recognition, not just face recognition, but then again, I’ve been arguing at this blog that face recognition cannot be separated from person recognition. Faces are only memorable because they are the front windows of minds. I think Dorothy’s strange and unexplained feeling of familiarity is a nice illustration of the way that person recognition is swifter and more emotional than the verbal labeling of people with personal names and place names that we are able to do once we are able to figure out where that person fits into our autobiographical memory bank. That memory bank is quite a thing to search, so it can take a while. I like the way that the Dunning-Kruger Effect or something like it is woven into the centre of the narrative of The Wizard of Oz, the tin man not understanding his own emotional dimension, the scarecrow suddenly spouting a bit of geometrical wisdom once told he does have a brain, and the lion needing to be told how brave he actually is even though he had been through so much. There’s also a message about the possibilities of human development, effort and experience changing what we are, if we care to give it a red-hot go. That could have something to do with synapses. Of course, this story has a lot to say about the psychology of quacks, con-artists, fame and inflated authority figures, but the odd thing is, despite the many decades of popularity of this book and the Hollywood movie, great hordes of educated people in America and other English-speaking countries continue to be conned and robbed by quacks, con-artists, famous people and inflated authority figures. Yes, I’m no genius for pointing out the main message of the story of The Wizard of Oz, but if it is such an obvious message, then why does it appear to be so seldom heeded?

A friendly face in a pile of rubbish

A child noticed this during a visit to Wolf Lane in the city to look at street art murals:

A section of a discarded box looks like a smiling face

a smiling face in a pile of rubbish



News on facial recognition technology of the last week

I briefly noticed a news story on TV a few days ago which featured a piece of facial recognition technology worn as glasses (like Google Glass) which included big claims about being able to identify a face from a database of thousands of persons of interest. I think the news story linked to above is that story, about X6 spy glasses, Osterhout Design Group, Defense Intelligence Agency (USA Govt) and Dr Brian Lovell, a professor at the University of Queensland and CTO at Imagus Pty Ltd. Dr Lovell has a very impressive CV but all the same I was not impressed in 2012 with the way he lightly dismissed the capabilities of human face recognition in an appearance on the Catalyst science TV show from the ABC. I’ll be impressed by the X6 technology when it is used and tested in real life applications. The period of time that human facial recognition capabilities have been used and tested in real life applications is measured in millions of years, so I think the artificial versions of facial recognition might have a bit of catching up to do.

On a similar theme I have found some interesting recent news stories comparing the facial recognition databases of Facebook and the FBI. It looks like Facebook’s DeepFace is superior in important ways compared to the FBI’s Next Generation Identification. I think it is important to consider the value of such databases, as well as human face recognition, as tools in the investigative process rather than as producers of forensic evidence, and for sure these technological facial recognition databases can use (memorize?) huge volumes of images. But regarding the actual process of face recognition, I’m still to be convinced that there is any technology that can do what humans, including human super-recognizers, can do. As Russell Brandom wrote in The Verge “While there are plenty of contractors who are willing to promise “near-human” recognition capabilities, real facial recognition is much harder than the industry lets on.”

Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia investigation as a form of psychotherapy?

I’m wondering why both of the words “morning” and “program” or as it was spelled when I was young “programme” always elicit a subtle taste experience of bland sloppy breakfast cereal (probably Weet Bix) softened to pap with milk. The whole experience reeks of boredom and ordinariness and mediocrity. I suspect that these synaesthesia associations are based on memories from my early school years, memories of eating a cheap and convenient and inferior breakfast (better than none I guess) and then being sent to primary school to listen to an unforgivably boring school assembly while being made to stand still in the cold morning air while singing along with one of those dreary songs from the 1970s about the morning (that one by Cat Stevens and there was another, some folk tune). I’m not sure how the word “program” fits into this picture, but I know that it is a word often used in a bland and meaningless way by administrators and bureaucrats and teachers to describe things that turn out to be less exciting than they appeared; “We are going to listen to a radio program this morning children” “If you do your best you will be allowed to take part in a special sport program”. How I hate programs! How I hate mornings! How I hated being made to drink plain milk from a little glass bottle in the morning at school! And how I hate eating nothing but wholegrain slop as a meal to start my day! I just want to to stay up late and watch Mrs Brown’s Boys and get up after 10 and eat bacon, eggs and ripe sweet red grilled tomatoes for breakfast, on crunchy toast with plenty of butter! No I do not want to get with the program!

Beats me why people are designing a computer program to do stuff that a super-recognizer could do standing on their head

Why, why, why do people assume that we need computers to do clever and sophisticated things in face recognition and face perception? Our brains have evolved over millions of years to do this stuff, and some people are even better at this stuff than the amazing feats of visual perception that the average Joe can do with barely a thought or effort.

If Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, identifiable through his facial appearance, then I guess that means that the Australian politician who was identified as a Lincoln double on the TV show Insiders must have it too.

If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one? Abraham Lincoln

How many other politicians can you think of who could recycle that witty remark?

Jokes aside, its worth taking a look at the larger image of the group of faces in the magazine article, because they change in ways that I find quite fascinating and familiar. Which one do you think looks the most like Alfred E. Neuman? I think the right-edge lower row.

Defining synaesthesia and some interesting research findings – a lecture by a leading Aussie synaesthesia researcher

Below is a link to a webpage that has a video of Associate Professor Anina Rich from Macquarie University delivering the Paul Bourke Lecture 2014 and answering questions afterwards. Some other speakers have a few things to say before her lecture. Associate Professor Anina Rich is the winner of the 2013 Paul Bourke Award for Early Career Research.

Calling all supers! New testing opportunity for all, and for some to take part in a study

One of the world’s leading researchers in the related areas of face memory, face recognition, prosopagnosia and super-recognition has given me the tip that super-recognizers are wanted as research subjects, and they are being recruited through the above web link which appears to be associated with the long-running online research and volunteer testing website TestMyBrain. I have also been advised that for this study the researchers are looking for subjects who reside in the continental states of the United States of America, but if that isn’t you, and you get a very high score in the test and follow the instructions and send the researchers your score there is some possibility that some time in the future you might be sought for some other study. Of course, you don’t have to share your score with anyone, and you might wish to take this test simply to get a good idea of what level of face memory ability you have. Maybe you suspect that you might have prosopagnosia (disability in face memory) or you might just want verification that you are what we call normal. When I finished the test I was given my own score and also an average score, so I guess you could use this test to compare yourself against the norm. I am not sure whether the researchers might object to curious people rather than potential super-recognizer study subjects doing the test. If that is a problem, they can let me know. I am also not 100% sure whether or not all scores from doing the online test are used as anonymous research data, as is the case in some websites that offer online neuro-cognitive testing, or is this testing merely used to screen eligible candidates for an upcoming study of super-recognizers. I suspect the latter. You should contact the researchers yourself if you have any questions.

This is an important new opportunity to undergo a test of face memory ability because this test is a version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, a test that has a well-deserved reputation as a scientifically valid test of face memory, and it has been quite a long time since I’ve been aware of any version of the CFMT being openly available to take through the internet. This test appears to be a third version of the CFMT, the first being a 72 question short form, the second version being the 102 question long form, and this version being another 72 question version but with new faces (I’m pretty good at judging these things) that are computer-generated. All versions have all male faces. I recall reading somewhere that the faces used for the first version of the CFMT are based on real American Caucasian people. It’s probably a good idea to use computer-generated faces for the latest version, to avoid the possibility that real people might be stopped in the street by super-recognizers exclaiming “Hey! You’re one of those blokes in that face recognition test!”

For people hoping to find a way of documenting their own status as a super-recognizer this is an opportunity to do a scientifically credible test of face recognition and also get access to your own written score in that test along with an average score, but be advised that I did not automatically get any printed statement verifying that my score was in the range of super-recognizers, and I did not notice any printed range of scores for super-recognizers given anywhere in the testing. It was pretty obvious from the results page that my score was in the elite range though. I have been advised by someone who should know that a score of 69 is considered to be in the super-recognizer range. I found this test to be harder than the first version of the CFMT, and I suspect that super-recognizers might find that they don’t bump their heads on a ceiling with this test. Information that I have at hand suggests that the average score on the new 72 question version of the CFMT is lower than the average score on the old 72 question version. For super-recognizers who are eligible and willing to take part in the study after they have done the screening test I guess there might be further opportunities to document their status as a super-recognizer and meet researchers, but I can only guess. At least your participation would give you the right to refer to yourself as a “Citizen Scientist”, which sounds fairly impressive. As I live in Australia I will not be able to participate in the study so I can’t advise you where it all leads. My best tips for people interested in documenting their score are to follow the instructions carefully, be ready to take your own full-colour print-outs of any screen with your score on it and if you have questions contact the people behind the test.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve been asked by a researcher from an overseas university to help with recruiting supers for research studies, and I’m happy to help with genuine requests because I like to see science moving forward and I know that participating in research can be interesting and sometimes rewarding. The website TestMyBrain is associated with many genuine researchers of social psychology, neuro-cognition, visual perception, face perception and various interesting and important things, including researchers from the Social Perception Lab at Dartmouth College and researchers from the prestigious Harvard University. Researchers linked to the website appear to be generally based at universities and colleges in the United States of America.

In case you are curious, my score on the new test is 69 out of 72 and I have been advised that my score is in the super-recognizer range. As I have written about in old posts at this blog, I have also done the earlier versions of the CFMT. The first version of the CFMT was either the first or the second face memory test that I ever did, and I was amazed at the time to get perfect scores on both online tests I did that day. I had gotten 72 out of 72 on the old version of the CFMT, but till then I had no idea that I was a super-recognizer. In 2010 through an Australian university I did some face memory tests in person and I firmly believe one of those tests was the long form of the CFMT, my score in that one given as “96%”, which presumably means I got 98 correct out of a possible 102 correct, which is well within the super-recognizer range, based on data about supers from the 2009 journal paper that launched the concept of the super-recognizer. As I’ve stated earlier, I have at hand data that indicates that the new CFMT is more difficult than the earlier version of the same length. The norm for the first version was given as 80% correct face recognition (presumably an average score of 57.6 out of 72) while the average for the new version is currently cited as a score of 52.49 (out of 72). So it appears that the CFMT has become more difficult while my face memory ability has not measurably changed in the four years since it was first tested.

I wish the researchers planning to study supers the best of luck and I look forward to reading a published report of what they find. We are all working to help people and to advance scientific knowledge, and those are for sure two noble causes.

I recognize one of them!


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