The trouble with police, large photograph databases and face recognition technology

Hodson, Hal Police mass face recognition in the US will net innocent people. New Scientist. October 20th 2016.

United States Government Accountability Office Face Recognition Technology: FBI Should Better Ensure Privacy and Accuracy. May 2016.

Had you assumed that hiring human super-recognizers to perform face recognition tasks would be less effective, less accurate and more open to bias than using technology? Think again.

Face recognition testing has a long history


An oldie but a goodie

That was a lark!

I would never have guessed how one might convert some synaesthesia into an entertaining stage show, until I saw Madame Lark today with our youngest, at the 2016 Awesome Festival in Perth. It looks like tomorrow is your last chance to catch her free show, which has a lot in common with the legendary Kransky Sisters, but certainly more cross-modal.

In case you are wondering how synaesthesia related to the show, there is a photo of a 2014 performance of Madame Lark at this blog article to illustrate, but ya had to be there.


Recent articles about supers, prosopagnosia, policing and face recognition research

Keefe, Patrick Radden The detectives who never forget a face. New Yorker. August 22nd 2016. Print edition title: Total Recall.

I was glad to read in this substantial and interesting article that face identification was not the only evidence used to convict criminals. And the last couple of sentences in this piece are too true!


Montagne, Renee ‘New Yorker’: The Detectives Who Never Forget A Face. NPR. August 17th 2016.


Another scientific idea of mine

Klein, Alice Semen reshapes immune system to boost chances of pregnancy. New Scientist. August 26th 2016.

My first thought on reading the headline and blurb of this article of science news was that it explains the sex ratio and typical age of onset of the autoimmune disease lupus or Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) which typically affects women with typical ages of onset during the years between puberty and menopause, the childbearing years. Because of this pattern medicos have suspected a hormonal cause for SLE but as far as I know this theory has not gathered evidence. An alternative explanation would be that SLE is a harmful side-effect of a normal ramping up of the activity of a woman’s immune system during her reproductive years in anticipation of the immune-damping effects of heterosexual activity (not “safe sex” with condoms or barrier methods of contraception but sex as it was practiced in the times when the human immune system evolved). The normal lifestyle of early human female adults of reproductive ages would have included mostly years of pregnancy, breastfeeding and unprotected sexual activity. It is my understanding that pregnancy dampens the immune system to a degree, and it appears unprotected heterosexual activity also could do this for women. I have no idea about breastfeeding, but I know it alters the profile of reproductive hormones and can suppress ovulation. So it appears that the modern woman of reproductive years can be exposed to many years without the immune-suppressing activities that would have been a normal part of the lives of her distant ancestors, so it makes sense that this could elevate the risk of developing SLE or any of the huge range of other autoimmune diseases. Not all autoimmune diseases affect females preferentially, some affect males more, and these sex ratios are surely a clue to what causes them.

I apologize to any of my readers who might be jolted or offended by discussion of the above matters, but I think it is important to discuss scientific ideas about diseases that kill and harm many people. Please readers also remember, if my ideas expressed in this post or in my blog in general are original, or could be original, do not publish or re-use them as though they were your own original thoughts. I’ve had that done to me before by academics, and any such behaviour will be publicly highlighted and soundly criticized.

What happened Friday before last?

It looks like something big happened on Friday August 19th 2016 in the world of super-recognition, as I’ve had a spike in readers at this blog. I wonder what happened?

Memory is fallible, but then again, there’s super-recognizers

It appears that super-recognizers (people with very good face recognition ability) are mentioned in the new book The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw, but I cannot find a preview of that bit of text. I’d be interested in reading what Shaw wrote about supers, because I believe that we are very good evidence against the argument that this book, and some other pop psychology books have offered, that human memory is unreliable and open to interference. I’ve noticed that writing by researchers and authors who offer arguments against the reliability of human memory and also those who offer arguments against the idea of natural or inborn talent tend to ignore or gloss over the many things that science already knows about face recognition, face memory and super-recognizers.

I’m happy to admit that people who perform amazing feats of semantic memory such as remembering huge lists of random facts or meaningless digits using new or ancient memory techniques have trained their own memories with many hours of practice, but super-recognizers are very different to those people. We do not knowingly or deliberately train ourselves and we do not consciously use tricks or techniques. Maybe we self-train and invent strategies in an implicit manner, but it is also true that super-recognition does seem to run in families, so there seems to be an important genetic contribution to the elite ability or talent, just as there is clearly a genetic component to developmental prospagnosia (very poor face recognition ability).

Face memory researchers have been investigating the phenomenon of super-recognition since it was first described in 2009, and there seems to be ample evidence that supers have very long-lasting, adaptable, and reliable memory of the faces of other humans. We can remember faces across many decades and across changes in facial appearance by forces such as ageing. I believe I am very good at spotting facial family resemblance and facial phenotypes across gender and age. Super-recognizers can also display very accurate face recognition after being briefly shown images of only faces (no hair etc) of a large group of faces of same gender and similar age, some of them very degraded images. This accuracy requires being able to avoid false positives and false negatives. There’s no denying that supers are bloody good at faces. There’s also no denying that some other people are very poor at face memory, so authors of these pop psychology books that denigrate human memory are able to state with a vague air of truth that human memory for faces is fallible. But such a statement ignores what we know about supers, and this is why I have issues with the common practice of psychology researchers of roputinely discarding data from outliers in their studies. If any of that discarded data is from outlier study participants that did incredible well in tests of face recognition or memory, then those participants could be supers and their data tells an important story about human memory and human face recognition.

I think supers are interesting examples of a type of human memory that stands out from other types of human memory as reliable, long-lasting, easily or unconsciously enmcoded and accurate, so one should wonder, why is the face memory of supers so great? My bet is that this niche example of human memory has two characteristics that give it special power: it is disributed across a broad network of neurons throughout the brain (and this is why it might be found along-side synaesthesia), and it is also a type of visual memory, which I can only assume is a very ancient and well-evolved type of human memory that predates stuff like writing and language, that happens in areas of the brain that work amazingly and unconsciously because they evloved well before there ever were humans. I cannot imagine how genuine face memory could ever be interfered with by suggestion or manipulation, because the tricks that some memory researchers have used to fool around with the memories of study participants work on a conscious level communicated by verbal means. Genuine face memory is implicit and visual. It is safe from such nonsense.

The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw:


A nice bit of botanical pareidolia

Davis, Josh (2016) Newly Described Orchid Has A Tiny Demon At Its Center. IFLS. 15th July 2016.


Two recently-published attention-grabbing open-access neuroscience journal papers

Shriki O, Sadeh Y, Ward J (2016) The Emergence of Synaesthesia in a Neuronal Network Model via Changes in Perceptual Sensitivity and Plasticity. PLoS Computational Biology. 12(7): e1004959. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004959

“The model unifies different causes of synaesthesia within a single theoretical framework and repositions synaesthesia not as some quirk of aberrant connectivity, but rather as a functional brain state that can emerge as a consequence of optimising sensory information processing.”


Anders Eklund, Thomas E. Nichols, and Hans Knutsson (2016) Cluster failure: Why fMRI inferences for spatial extent have inflated false-positive rates.
PNAS 2016 ; published ahead of print June 28, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1602413113

“In theory, we should find 5% false positives (for a significance threshold of 5%), but instead we found that the most common software packages for fMRI analysis (SPM, FSL, AFNI) can result in false-positive rates of up to 70%. These results question the validity of some 40,000 fMRI studies and may have a large impact on the interpretation of neuroimaging results.”

Interesting commentary:

Oxenham, Simon Thousands of fMRI brain studies in doubt due to software flaws. New Scientist. July 18th 2016.