Monthly Archives: December 2010

Messing about with my blog

I’ve been fiddling about with the settings of this blog, and it might be easier to comment on and share stuff in this blog, I hope. Don’t be shy.

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Places in the Mind

On Christmas Day I had another odd moment of a neurological nature. Many people travel to visit family during the festive season. We had a bit of a drive this year. On the way home, as I was looking at the scenery as a car front-seat passenger I got a rare special feeling of familiarity for the location that we were travelling through.

This stretch of road is special because it is the place that I always (I think automatically) visualize and also “feel” spatially in my mind when I think of particular concepts, as though the concepts are entries or articles in an encyclopaedia in my brain, and the visualised images are the illustrations that go with that article. The concepts involved are “camping in the bush” and “beyond the Darling Range, on the way to Toodyay”. The place visualized is a stretch of straight road, I think it’s on the Great Eastern Highway. If you are travelling towards Perth, it has a steep hill covered in trees and bush on the right side of the road, with cleared farm land lower on the left. At the end of the straight stretch the road curves to the right, up a hill I think, through more bushland. When I travel through such places for real, I experience a more powerful than normal feeling of familiarity, because these are places that I visit as memories more often than I visit in the flesh. It’s a little bit strange. I suspect that this is a feeling that could be mistaken by some people as some type of spiritual or mystical experience. Maybe I shouldn’t be so presumptuous about the origins of such experiences.

There are a few other places like this, locations that my mind habitually uses as visual illustrations for specific concepts. Some of these real places have changed from how they appear as my memories, and some have been demolished and redeveloped, unrecognizable if not for my sense of place and direction. These place memories are like concrete, real, locate-able examples of ideas that are not as real and singular and easy to find on a map. These memories are something like archetypes. I am sure that my synaesthesia and spatial memory are linked to this phenomenon.

My Brain Put to the Test

In the first post in this blog I have described an interesting thing that I have experienced that is most certainly related to synaesthesia and also face perception. The trouble with my description is that the reality of my experience cannot be verified by any other person, much the same problem that was once incorrectly thought to be a barrier to the scientific investigation of synaesthesia. What we can do is investigate whether there is anything different or even superior about my brain. Many scientific psychological tests are freely available that can be used to this end. Over the years I have done a few tests that are very relevant to the strange phenomenon that I have already described in detail.

A few years ago I found a test that was an appendix at the back of a pop psychology book that I borrowed from a library. That test was the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and apparently it is a test used by university researchers. Out of curiosity I did the test and got a score of 33 out of a possible score of 36. The notes at the end of the test state “If you scored over 30 you are very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.” So I guess I got a good score, but I wasn’t hugely impressed by my effort, as a friend of mine also had a go at that test and she got a better score than mine.

Having an interest in psychology (it was one of the subjects that I studied at university many years ago), I came across something written about coloured letters of the alphabet, and I learned that this experience is a scientifically recognized thing, and that it has a name – synaesthesia. I was intrigued to learn that other people experience numbers and letters as having their own colours which never change. I had thought that it was only my own peculiarity, and I knew that it was a bit strange and I could think of no explanation for it. Having good sense, I had never mentioned it or discussed it with anyone else. It was nice to know that it is a harmless oddity that is really fairly common, but often kept secret. Some years later I found out that there is a group of online tests that one can do to verify if one has various types of colour synaesthesia such as coloured letters, numbers, days of the week and months. This group of tests is the Synesthesia Battery. It also includes some test involving musical notes which I have no clue about. I believe this battery is the work of a team of researchers at an American university, and after doing it, I can see that it is a test that would be hard to cheat. The beauty of this test is that it relies on genuine synaesthetes using their synaesthesia to outperform non-synaesthetes. I had a go at the tests of coloured things, and my scores were thus:

Grapheme Color Picker Test – Score: 0.38

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0. A perfect score of 0.0 would mean that there was no difference in the colors selected on each successive presentation of the same letter.”

Speed-Congruency Test – Accuracy 90.28%, Mean Reaction Time 1.469 seconds +/- 0.508

“An accuracy percentage of right answers in the range of 85-100 typically indicates synesthetic association between the graphemes and colors. Those below typically rule out synesthesia.”

Weekday Color Picker Test – Score: 0.32

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0.”

Month Color Picker Test – Score: 0.46

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0.”

So, there can be no doubt that I am “synesthetic”. The colours in my head are scientifically proven to be real. I didn’t need some scientist to tell me that, but this is confirmation. I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and some other types of synaesthesia in addition to that.

After experiencing “the strange phenomenon” for many months, and gradually figuring out that there are very specific and narrow conditions that must be met for this phenomenon to happen, and realising that it works like synaesthesia, I realised that it is interestingly different to all of the types of synaesthesia that I have read about, because it involves faces and the recognition of faces. This was interesting enough, but it was another aspect of the situation that really gave me pause for thought. I understood that “the strange phenomenon” seems to be showing me that two people who I had seen are linked, possibly completely unknown to each other, by some kind of shared genetic condition. This is the only explanation that I can think of as to why two unrelated people of different genders have such similar-looking faces, among other similarities. I knew that this was a pretty incredible thing to see or to know, especially if the people involved do not know the full story. These people do not look diseased or strange, and they definitely are not intellectually impaired, so the situation is not obvious. The whole situation is socially bizarre and full of moral questions. I also reflected on the possibility that my interest in faces and similarities between faces is beyond ordinary. Would another person notice a face that looks like their mother’s in a drawing by Mucha? Who knows? Am I different? I was sure there was nothing wrong with my ability to recognize faces, but having an interest in scientific stuff, I knew that there is a condition named prosopagnosia, and that there are tests designed by scientists to diagnose people with this problem, and I thought it would be a good idea to try a test just to be sure that something funny wasn’t going on in my scone. I found my way to http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/ I did the tests that I found there:

The Famous Faces Test – Score: 30 correct out of a possible score of 30 (100%)

“On our previous version of this test, the average person with normal face recognition was able to recognize about 85% of the faces they were familiar with.”

Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) – Score 72 correct out of a possible score of 72 (100%)

“On our previous version of this test, the average person with normal face recognition was able to recognize about 80% of the faces.”

I accidentally did this same test, with the same faces, a second time when I had a go at a battery of tests and a questionnaire at another site on the internet that included the CFMT. Again I got a perfect score of 72 out of 72. I guess this result shouldn’t be taken too seriously, because me having previous practice could have boosted my score, but one might also argue that this score indicated that my first perfect score wasn’t just an accident of chance. These perfect scores were all quite a shock, and I was left curious about what my real level of ability is in this area, because there is always the possibility that tests such as these are too easy to measure the upper extreme of ability. It appeared that I had hit a ceiling.

I’m not sure when it was that I came across the concept of the super-recognizer. Super-recognizers are people at the upper extreme of level of ability in recognizing faces. A Google search easily finds the science journal paper that introduced the concept of the super-recognizer. The authors are university researchers Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama. I read the paper with interest, and I thought some of the unique experiences reported by super-recognizers were similar to my experiences. Super-recognizers are able to recognize casual acquaintances who haven’t been seen for many years. I thought this type of ability was similar to my being able to remember Jean’s face, a person who was nobody to me many years ago, and knowing my test scores, I knew there was a possibility that I belong in this group. The researchers found that the super-recognizers did better than the controls in two face recognition tests, including one that I had already done, the 72 question version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, and like me 3 of the 4 super-recognizers got perfect scores in this test, while none of the controls did. I had actually scored better than one of the super-recognizers in this test, who got one question wrong. But this test alone didn’t appear to be enough to decisively sort the super-recognizers from the normal people. The other test discussed in the journal paper was the Before They Were Famous Test, and it looked as though it was difficult. I would need to do this test of face recognition ability or another just as difficult, and do well, in order to really confirm that I am a super-recognizer.

The idea of me as a super-recognizer was most interesting for a variety of reasons: it would be an element of solving the puzzle of “the strange phenomenon”, it is an ability that could be marketable or useful in many ways, and I was the only case that I knew of linking synaesthesia with unusually good ability in face recognition. I had already heard of synaesthetes who have trouble recognizing faces, but not the opposite, although the science explaining grapheme-colour synaesthesia seems to suggest that high ability is likely, considering that this type of synaesthesia is caused by extra connectivity and involves the fusiform gyrus which also plays a central role in face processing. So I was pretty keen to have a go at the Before They Were Famous Test or something similar, but unlike the other tests, it did not appear to be easily accessible through the internet. I was forced to approach researchers for help. At this point my story slowed down considerably. I have given a detailed account of my dealings with university researchers from all around the world, including doing face recognition tests in person at an Australian university, in my 2011 post titled “Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year” (see link below).

Just out of curiousity I’ve recently had a go at the “Face to Face online study” from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which is actually the CFMT and a similar test of recognizing motor cars (which are possibly not real models). I got a score of 71 out of 72 (99%) for the CFMT (average score given as 75%), and in the car recognition test I got 62 out of 72 (86%) which can’t be judged as the test is still being developed and the researchers don’t have enough data to give an average score. My score on the CFMT this time should be considered in light of the fact that the faces in the test presented by the MIT are the same faces that I’ve already seen when I took this same test at at Faceblind.org, so I should have had some advantage at that test. Out of curiousity again I did a face memory test that I found at the website of the BBC. I got a perfect score for face recognition, a score of 91% for temporal memory associated with face memory (average score 68%) and a low number of false-positive identifications.

So, up to this point I know these things: I am “very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.”, I most definitely have “synesthetic association between the graphemes and colors” and I have high ability in recognizing faces that is consistent with being a super-recognizer.

I have kept records of my results in all of the tests mentioned, including printouts of screen-shots of my scores in the online tests. My test results from The Synesthesia Battery are also kept stored in computerized form, and with my consent can be shared with other researchers anywhere in the world through email. I am happy to share this information with qualified university-based researchers or established science journalists who might be interested. To date no researcher from any part of the world has online or in person asked to see any of the test results that I have mentioned in this article.

Further reading:

Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year.

https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/science-week-2011-%e2%80%93-the-world-of-science-and-me-in-the-past-year/

 Links to Tests Mentioned

The Synesthesia Battery

http://www.synesthete.org/

“Eyes Test (Adult)”

http://www.autismresearchcentre.com/tests/eyes_test_adult.asp

“Reading the mind in the eyes”

http://glennrowe.net/BaronCohen/Faces/EyesTest.aspx

Vision, Memory, and Face Recognition Online

http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/index.php

Massachusetts Institute of Technology “MIT’s Face to Face online study” “Investigating face memory in people with and without autism” “Principle Investigator: Nancy Kanwisher, Ph.D.”

http://facetoface.mit.edu/

BBC Science Face Memory Test  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/

Some prosopagnosia or face perception-related books for a general readership published this year

Perrett, David In Your Face: The New Science of Human Attraction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

http://www.amazon.com/Your-Face-Science-Human-Attractiveness/dp/0230201296

Sacks, Oliver The Mind’s Eye. Knopf, 2010.

http://www.amazon.com/Minds-Eye-Oliver-Sacks/dp/0307272087#_

Dr Sacks describes his prosopagnosia and his agnosia for scenes in one chapter of this popular science book.

Sellers, Heather  You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness. Riverhead Hardcover, 2010.

http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Look-Like-Anyone-Know/dp/1594487731/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1290256781&sr=1-1

This is a review of the new book You don’t look like anyone I know by Heather sellers. Includes a link to audio of story at All Things Considered at NPR.

Living With Face Blindness: Who Are You, Again? NPR. November 13th 2010.

http://www.npr.org/2010/11/12/131267727/living-with-face-blindness-who-are-you-again

Another one?

FFS. I was just watching an episode of the British TV series “Museum of Life” on ABC1, while eating a late dinner and talking with family etc, not watching the show closely at all even though it did look most interesting, and I noticed on one of the smart people in the show, for a moment or two, a particular subtle, tight-lipped expression on their mouth. It is hard to describe and to hard to interpret, but it looks like it could be a sign of an emotion like “You are now trying my patience” or more likely “I’m getting determined now”. John and Jean came to mind, and I looked at the rest of the face of this person on the science TV series, and there are many ways in which this person looks similar to John and Jean: shape of face, shape of jaw, features, eyes, colouring, etc, except for the wrinkles. There was no “strange phenomenon”, and they aren’t identical by any means, but I’m still left wondering if I’m looking at a “type”.

I’m also wondering if it might have been something like a micro-expression on Jean’s face that made me unconsciously take notice of her, all those years ago. I’d think twice about challenging the owner of a mouth like the one I just saw.

A Most Peculiar Experience

I don’t know about you, but my life has had more than a few strange moments. It is always hard to know what to say when a close friend “comes out”. There was the time when I got into trouble during a night dive on the reef. I’ll never forget meeting my complex and unusual mother-in-law for the first time at our wedding (and neither will our guests, no doubt). An aesthetically weird experience was listening to grotesquely distorted radio transmissions while touring the barren moonscape of low hills and salt flats surrounding Lake Eyre south, alone. After a while it seemed as though whispered words in a demonic voice could be discerned within the metallic noise. Working at a truck-stop in the middle of nowhere in the middle of 45 degree heat was quite an experience. There really are people in this world who enjoy a king-sized lime-flavoured milkshake. I’ve been many things and done a lot of places, or is that been many people and seen a lot of places? I’m not sure, but I’ve been around. In addition to the strange and challenging situations that any person who has lived a reasonably rounded life encounters, I also have odd experiences of a neurological nature. With the wisdom that only comes with maturity, I understand that nature has been kind to me, because she has done so much to make my life interesting.

 

The Strange Phenomenon

John* is a man who’s face I see at least once a week. John is a bit of a character, but I’ve got a lot of respect for John. John is not my friend or anything closer than that. John has an interesting face, and it attracts my attention when he is speaking. His face seems unusual in that it looks quite different when viewed from directly in front compared to how it looks viewed in profile. John has a facial feature that looks prominent in profile but looks like nothing much at all from a full-face view. This is almost like an optical illusion, and it gives John’s face quite a different “personality” when viewed from different angles. Visual curiosities like this grab my attention.

I’m not sure when it was that I first noticed “the strange phenomenon”. It has happened repeatedly over many months at least, possibly over a year. I know for sure that it was happening during the first half of 2010. While watching John (speaking or not speaking), if I was paying attention and also viewing his face from a position at around 45 degrees to the side (the only viewpoint that can capture the overall character of John’s face), and his face is also lit by natural sunlight, then, automatically and without warning, a very vivid memory of the face of Jean*, as she appeared years ago when I last saw her, viewed from exactly the same angle, would appear in my mind’s eye, sort of super-imposed over my real-time visual perception of John’s face. Once my memory of Jean and her face is “unlocked” in this way, memories come to mind about how she looked, and sometimes I recall the sound of her voice, which seems similar to John’s voice, in tone and also in emotional expression, even though there is the obvious gender difference. Maybe Jean is a bit less feminine than the average woman, but generally John and Jean seem pretty normal in terms of gender characteristics. I have never thought of them as androgynous. They both are intelligent adults and there is nothing blatantly strange in their manner or appearance. I have two theories about why this phenomenon is strongest at a 45 degree angle – this angle gives the best overview of a face, and also this view minimizes at least one gender difference between male and female faces. Men generally have broader faces than women, but this facial sexual dimorphism is minimized when viewed from the side.

I have never had this type of experience involving the faces of any other people – it only happens when I’m looking at John’s face. What’s so special about these people that they are the only faces that provoke this strange phenomenon? I will offer an explanation later. The short answer is that their faces look incredibly alike. As I remember her, Jean wore little of no makeup. I suspect that her resemblance to John might not have been as noticeable to me if she had worn enough makeup to make a difference to her facial appearance. It has been a number of years since I last saw Jean, so I don’t know if this strange phenomenon might work in reverse – with Jean’s face automatically evoking a visual memory of John’s. Jean’s face was the first of John and Jean’s faces that I ever saw. There is no overlap in time of the different periods of time when I’ve seen their faces regularly. At least five years separates these periods.

Who is Jean? Jean is a woman who served me over a counter, sometimes, at a place that I frequented for a few years about seven years ago.  I haven’t (knowingly) seen her for years. I did not know her socially and I wouldn’t say we were particularly friendly (or unfriendly). At the time there was something in her manner and presentation that gave me the impression that there could be an unusual conservatism in her personality. I hardly remember Jean, except for those times when I see her face and hear her voice with stunning clarity in my memory. (Does that make sense?) I had not thought of Jean being in any way connected to John or resembling John before the strange phenomenon started happening. I just hadn’t seen the connection before. I have no record of Jean’s appearance besides my memory, and I don’t think I ever knew her surname. Jean and John would be roughly similar in age, but they are not siblings. I am not aware of any familial connection between them, but I also can’t be absolutely sure that none exists.

The strange phenomenon is a very orderly, sensitive and predictable thing. Conditions have to be “just right” for it to happen. If John’s face is not lit by sunlight, the phenomenon will not happen. If John has a big, beaming smile, it will not happen, but a more subtle smile sometimes does not block the phenomenon. If John looks inebriated or unusually emotional in some way, the phenomenon does not happen. When John gained weight, the phenomenon stopped. Excess weight distorts and covers some elements of the appearance of the face (and is also a health hazard). The strange phenomenon does not happen if I view John’s face from a profile view, and it rarely happens when his face is viewed from a full-face angle – it generally needs to be viewed from 45 degrees. The strange phenomenon requires viewing of John’s face in the right conditions for a few moments before it happens – it happens abruptly but not instantly.

Since I was a young child I have had synesthesia/synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a common benign condition of the brain associated with an unusually rich network of connections in the white matter of the brain. Most cases are genetic in origin, and it runs in my family. One of the types of synaesthesia that I have, coloured letters and numbers, is associated with “extra activations in the fusiform gyrus” which is a part of the brain. The fusiform face area is the part of the brain that “does” face recognition. It is situated within the fusiform gyrus. It appears that there is something interesting going on in my fusiform gyrus. The strange phenomenon has many features in common with synaesthesia, and I believe it is an unusual type of synaesthesia. I believe the very specific image of John’s face seen under very specific conditions is an inducer, trigger or stimulus of my synaesthesia, and my remembered image of Jean’s face is the concurrent or additional sensory experience in my synaesthesia. Like synaesthesia, the strange phenomenon is automatic. It is not something that I “do” intentionally or wish to happen, although I find it amusing to anticipate it and then see it happen. I am sure I would be unable to prevent it by conscious will from happening. Like synaesthesia, the phenomenon is reliable. Given exactly the right conditions, it will happen.

What does the strange phenomenon feel like? The normal process that this phenomenon most feels like is face recognition, but with the twist that my mind “changes its mind” about who it is looking at. It feels as though at first my mind normally recognizes the face as John’s, with no fuss, but then it seems to impose a different interpretation, dredging up Jean as a better answer to the question of “Who is the owner of this face?” I’ve wondered why my mind should be so willing to abnormally review its original correct decision. I can only guess that there is some mechanism in the brain that gives precedence to much older face memories when choosing between very similar-looking stored memories of faces during the process of identifying a currently seen face. Alternately, my brain, and all brains, might be designed to identify not only the faces of individuals, but also to identify similarities betweenpeople’s faces, as a clue to genetic relatedness. I know enough about biology and evolution to know that intelligent animals such as humans are likely to have evolved features to help us to identify our kin and kinship between others.

Does the strange phenomenon cause emotional distress? Not to me, but it is a weird experience. Many of the types of synaesthesia that I experience are so unobtrusive and fleeting that they can go unnoted, and some types are so predictable that they feel completely ordinary. In my experience it is the types of synaesthesia that are rarely experienced and are person-triggered that are the most startling and subjectively weird. The strange phenomenon fits into both categories. It is these experiences that can make one think “WTF?” or “S*** a brick!” or “That is the strangest thing!” (to quote the title of a book about synaesthesia).

Viewing people’s faces is obviously a social-type experience. As anyone would, I feel as though I am witnessing moods and personalities when I view faces. I wouldn’t be surprised if John and Jean turned out to have similar personalities, but at the same time, I don’t feel that I can read Jean or John “like a book”.

When John gained weight the appearance of his face changed and the strange phenomenon stopped. This is not the first time that a type of synaesthesia that I’ve experienced that is triggered by particular characteristics of a person has been extinguished by a change in that person. This possibly gives me a greater appreciation of time and people, and the brevity of childhood and life in general.

There are many reasons why I believe that this strange phenomenon is interesting and unusual. It seems to be a mixture of synaesthesia, ordinary remembering and face recognition, and I’m sure this is an unusual thing. The strange phenomenon differs from ordinary remembering in many ways. It requires a very specific visual trigger, it happens repeatedly and reliably, like synaesthesia it relies on attention but is otherwise independent of conscious control, and it evokes a vivid memory of the face of a person who shouldn’t be memorable to me. This phenomenon is one of two different types of synaesthesia that I experience which automatically “unlock” vivid and often very old visual memories, giving extraordinary glimpses into a world of visual memories that are apparently stored away in my mind like photos or videotapes, but can only rarely be accessed.

Significantly, the other type of synaesthesia of mine which gives spontaneous vivid mental images evokes my memories of specific places (not people) that I have visited in the past, but which often aren’t particularly memorable. These “visions” of places look as they did last time I saw them, frozen in time. I “see” places (in my mind’s eye) that have since been demolished, and some of these images date back to scenes my early childhood. These involuntarily recalled visual memories of places are only visual experiences, they do not involve smells or sounds or other non-visual types of sensory experience. There appears to be a neurological link between the recognition of faces and the recognition of places, with disability in recognizing both of these types of things found together in some people. The famous neurologist and author Dr Oliver Sacks is one person who has prosopagnosia (a disability in recognizing faces) and also a disability in recognizing places. There appear to be two different scientific terms in use for this neurologically-based inability to recognize scenes: “agnosia for scenes” (seen in a New Scientist article) and “topographical agnosia” (Sacks 2010). In a recent article published in New Yorker magazine, and also in his recent book The Mind’s Eye, Dr Sacks described his problems with getting lost in the streets after unknowingly walking past his own house a number of times, and also being unable to recognize people he knows well. The British primatologist Dame Jane Goodall is another famous person who has trouble recognizing faces and also places. Faces and places are the only types of things that I receive spontaneous “visions” of. I am sure this is no mere coincidence. Like the strange phenomenon,  I find it amusing to anticipate receiving a “vision” of a place when the conditions are just right, and then watching it appear, suddenly, and for no logical reason.

My strange phenomenon has two features which I believe make the strange phenomenon truly strange: it involves effortless mental processing of a task that should be rather difficult (sorting through a lifetime of memories of countless faces, then matching two faces of people of different genders that look very similar from angles which give a view that is least affected by sexual dimorphism), and the strange phenomenon also manifests as a very vivid image in the mind’s eye (language and words have no role in this phenomenon).

I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and I am closely related to people who also have this type of synaesthesia and who have also been formally offered places, more than once, to gifted and talented educational programs. I believe there is a connection between the synaesthesia and the smarts. I am also in a family that has at least four generations of people who have particular talents in the areas of English and foreign languages (grapheme-colour synaesthetes are among this group). I believe it is possible that which ever genes give rise to grapheme-colour synaesthesia and related cognitive differences could be evolutionary adaptations that give an advantage in learning languages and reading. I believe it could be as simple as a gene that boosts the development of visual memory, for words, letters and also faces.

I am not aware of any description in the scientific or popular literature of an experience that is genuinely the same type of thing as the strange phenomenon. This does not make me doubt the reality of what I have experienced. I would expect that this would be a rare phenomenon, because it is the result of a combination of some most unusual factors – two different observations of a quietly unusual pair of people, separated by a very long period of time, observed by another unusual person, who has the interest in scientific matters and the inclination to try to make sense of it all. Rare things do happen, but not very often.

*Not their real names. Obviously, the true identities of John and Jean cannot be divulged.

 

Alternative ways of categorizing the strange phenomenon/competing explanations

Is it just an idiosyncratic and meaningless connection between two things due to synaesthesia?

I don’t think so. The two people objectively do look similar, so the link does not seem to be random or accidental. It’s not as though the sight of a face make me hear a sound or see a colour, the strange phenomenon only involves faces.

Is the phenomenon just the simple remembering of a similar-looking face?

No, it is different, because it is much less influenced by conscious control than simple remembering, and the memories evoked are more vivid and extensive than can be retrieved by conscious effort at remembering. Perhaps one could describe the strange phenomenon as face recognition that is “turbocharged” with synaesthesia. The strange phenomenon feels strange, because it makes me see a similarity between two faces and two people that doesn’t seem to make sense – they can’t be identical twins, because one is male and one female.

Is the phenomenon an experience typical of those of “super-recognizers”?

No, but there are many similarities. Super-recognizers report being able to recognize people who were last met many years ago and were not more than a fleeting acquaintance. My remembering Jean is like this. Super-recognizers also are able to recognize despite changes in appearance such as child to adult transition and changes of hairstyle. My recognizing of similarities in faces of different genders is similar to this. The phenomenon feels like face recognition. I have already completed some tests of face recognition ability that are readily accessible through the internet, and I got perfect scores, which could indicate that I’m a super-recognizer.

Is the phenomenon like one of those uncanny moments of noticing a family resemblance, like noticing a grandparent’s frown in a young child?

It is similar to this in that it involves similar-looking people but it also transcends stuff like gender and age, but noticing family resemblances is different in that it is unpredictable, occasional, is typically triggered by gestures or expressions, and does not typically unlock a cache of hidden memories. The strange phenomenon seems to involve the whole face, not a part of the face.

Is this phenomenon a case of mistaken identity with two very similar-looking people, in an unusual situation? (as might happen when meeting the identical twin of a person that one already knows)

This explanation seems applicable in some ways but isn’t. John and Jean do look similar, when viewed from a certain angle, but there is no mistaken identity. All the way through the strange phenomenon my conscious mind is clear about who is who, the identity confusion happens on a more primitive level. I’ve known two sets of identical twins in my past. I never liked any of them enough to care which was which.

Is the phenomenon like recognizing a previously known genetic syndrome in a number of different people, such as identifying that a stranger has Down syndrome?

The phenomenon is similar to this in that it transcends stuff like age and gender. Identifying a person as having Down syndrome is different in that (for me) it is not a strange experience and does not evoke visual memories of individuals seen in the past. I believe my brain treats Down syndrome in a similar way that it treats racial differences. Perhaps my brain would act more oddly when confronted with people who have a genetic syndrome that is not fairly common, familiar and obvious. I think it is likely that John and Jean have the same rare genetic syndrome, but I don’t know what it might be. There is more to this story than I’ve set out here.

Is the phenomenon Synaesthesia?

I believe it is. It is reliable, repetitive, automatic and involuntary like synaesthesia. I cannot voluntarily access my memories of Jean as fully as happens in the phenomenon. It does not require or involve effort. Like synaesthesia it requires paying attention to the trigger. It is sensory (visual). It involves a very specific trigger evoking a very specific experience, like synaesthesia. It happens suddenly and without warning. It “hits you”. Some types of synaesthesia are like this. It involves memory, and synesthetes are thought to have superior memory.

Why do you ask and answer your own questions?

I’m not sure, but it works for me.

 

Some explanations that I believe are NOT applicable

Some type of delusional misidentification syndrome (DMS)

There are many different recognized types of delusional syndromes that involve incorrect identification of people, and some are thought to be due to faulty face recognition or perception. I have carefully considered all of the DMS’s listed at the Wikipedia, and none of them describe the same situation as the strange phenomenon. The only type of DMS that I have heard of that is in any way similar to it is something that Dr Oliver Sacks described in his article in New Yorker, a hyperfamiliarity for faces that Sacks claims was described by Devinsky (Sacks gives no reference in this article). Sacks describes a disorder in which everyone feels familiar to a person with the disorder, and the person with the delusion might approach strangers and address them as though they are old friends. I do not do this. Even if I was a more extroverted person, I would not do this because I do not have a feeling of familiarity for masses of other people. I believe there is nothing wrong with my ability to tell the difference between faces that I have never seen, and those that I have seen in the past. I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk into a room of people and feel like I was surrounded by old friends. That doesn’t sound like me at all! I’ve had a read of the 2002-2003 journal paper by Vuilleumier et al about a case of hyperfamiliarity for unknown faces. I do not believe I have anything in common with the patient described, except that we both have good face recognition abilities (the title of the paper appears to be a typo). Neither John nor Jean were unfamiliar to me during the time when the strange phenomenon started. Their faces were and are not unfamiliar faces.

The simple fact that I was able to get some perfect scores in scientifically credible tests of face recognition surely shows that I do not have a fault in my face recognition brain “hardware”. I wouldn’t expect a delusional syndrome to be associated with a very high level of ability.

Out of curiousity I did a face memory test that I found at the website of the BBC. I do not know anything about who created this test, but it can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/ I got a perfect score for face recognition, a score of 91% for temporal memory associated with face memory (average score 68%) and a low number of false-positive identifications. I think the fact that I scored very low (one, caused by a misunderstanding of the question) for false-positive identifications shows that my identification of faces in general isn’t influenced by some hyperfamiliarity, misidentification or delusion disorder. I don’t have a general problem with seeing unfamiliar faces as familiar.

There is one area of cognition in which I do possibly have an abnormal sensation of false familiarity. You could call it “dialogue déjà vu”. It is associated with things that I write or say to other people. I might write a note or tell a story to someone else, and immediately after I might feel that it is too familiar, and I wonder whether I have already told that person in the past. The result is that I never feel completely confident about judging if I’ve already had a conversation or informed someone about something, and I annoy family sometimes by telling the same story twice.

A visual disturbance or vision defect

There are some interesting and exotic types of visual disturbances, but they do not adequately explain the strange phenomenon, because it only happens when I see the face of one particular person under very specific conditions. No visual disturbance or defect in vision could be this selective. I have had glasses for short-sightedness since I was a teen, but I only really need to wear them for driving at night. Small print is getting harder to read as I age, and my colour vision at night isn’t perfect, but I regard my vision as pretty normal for my age. As a synaesthete who experiences visual manifestations of synaesthesia as appearing in my mind’s eye, and not projected into space around me, I am well aware of the difference between things seen through my eyes and things seen within, in my mind, memory or imagination. Jean’s face is seen in my mind’s eye – her face is not a defective image originating from my eye.

How blind could I be if I am able to get perfect scores on tests of face recognition ability?

Hallucination

Here are definitions of “hallucination” from three different sources:

Famous neurologist, author and prosopagnosic Oliver Sacks quoted from his Feb 2009 TED talk about hallucinations:

“They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to be from the outside, and [seem] to mimic perception.”

Clinical Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist Dominic Ffytche in a 2004 clinical guide to visual hallucination and illusion disorders, on the difference between visual images and hallucinations:

Visual images appear in the mind’s eye and are under some degree of volitional control, as opposed to hallucinations and illusions which are externally located, unpredictable and outside volition (in the sense that one cannot choose to make a hallucination of, say, a face turn into that of a chair).”

 Wikipedia article titled “Hallucination”

A hallucination, in the broadest sense of the word, is a perception in the absence of a stimulus. In a stricter sense, hallucinations are defined as perceptions in a conscious and awake state in the absence of external stimuli which have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space.”

The Strange Phenomenon does not fall under the definition of hallucination for two reasons – because it is not percieved or located externally, it is in the mind’s eye, and it does not happen in the absence of a stimulus, the stimulus is the visual perception of John’s face as seen under very specific conditions. This is not a conventional stimulus, it is a synaesthesia-type stimulus.

Psychosis

I do not know what psychosis or insanity are like, as I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my life to never have had such experiences, but I’m sure that such disorders of the mind would not manifest with the great precision, order and rarity of the strange phenomenon. I do not live a disordered life. I have no demerit points on my driver’s licence.

Apparently “It is well established that schizophrenia is associated with difficulties recognising facial expressions of emotion.” (abstract of Tomlinson et al 2006). I have done a test of identifying facial expressions of emotion, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, and I got a score of 33 out of 36, which indicates that I am “…very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.” So I guess that means it is highly unlikely that I have schizoprenia.

Recreational drug effects

The same comments apply as those for psychosis. I do not regularly take any prescription, alternative medicine or illicit drugs, except caffeine and the odd aspirin. I rarely drink alcohol. I do not get any effect like the strange phenomenon from any drug or alcohol. Synaesthetes don’t need drugs!

Epilepsy (including reflex epilepsy)

I do not have this diagnosis. There is no shaking or loss of consciousness associated with the strange phenomenon.

Migraine Aura

Headaches are not associated with the strange phenomenon. I sometimes get super-acute senses with a headache, but nothing associated with “visions”, visual disturbance or face recognition.

Illness, fever, sleep deprivation, fatigue, delirium

Not applicable. The strange phenomenon has been happening over a very long period of time.

Religious or supernatural “vision”

I’ve been an atheist rationalist for most of my life. This type of thing doesn’t happen to me. God doesn’t care about me, and the feeling is mutual.

 

References and recommended reading

Ffytche, DominicVisual Hallucination and Illusion Disorders: A Clinical Guide.ACNR. VOLUME 4 NUMBER 2 MAY/JUNE 2004. p. 16-18.http://www.acnr.co.uk/pdfs/volume4issue2/v4i2reviewart3.pdf

Jäncke L, Beeli G, Eulig C, Hänggi J. The neuroanatomy of grapheme-color synesthesia.Eur J Neuroscience. 2009 Mar;29(6):1287-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19302164

Lambert, Craig Facial pheenoms. Harvard Magazine. September-October 2009. http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/09/facial-pheenoms

Mendez, MF, Cherrier, MM Agnosia for scenes in topographagnosia. Neuropsychologia.2003;41(10):1387-95. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12757910

Rouw, Romke and Scholte, H. Steven Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia.Nature Neuroscience. Volume 10 Number 6 June 2007. http://www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/systems-plasticity/jc/potential-papers/rouw_2007.pdf

Russell R, Duchaine B, Nakayama K Super-recognizers: people with extraordinary face recognition ability.Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.2009 Apr;16(2):252-7. http://pbr.psychonomic-journals.org/content/16/2/252.full.pdf

Sacks, Oliver Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds. (lecture given Feb 2009) TED. http://www.ted.com/talks/oliver_sacks_what_hallucination_reveals_about_our_minds.html

Sacks, Oliver A neurologists’ notebook: face-blind.New Yorker. August 30th 2010. p. 36-?. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_sacks

Sacks, Oliver The mind’s eye. Picador, 2010. (chapter in this book titled “Face-Blind” p.82-110 is a longer version of the New Yorker article above)

Tomlinson, Eleanor K., Jones, Christopher A., Johnston, Robert A., Meaden, Alan, and Wink, Brian Facial emotion recognition from moving and static point-light images in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research. July 2006. Volume 85 Issue 1 p.96-105. http://www.schres-journal.com/article/S0920-9964(06)00098-3/abstract

Vuilleumier, Patrik, Mohr, Christine,  Valenza, Nathalie, Wetzel, Corinne and Landis, Theodor Hyperfamiliarity for unknown faces after left lateral temporooccipital venous infarction: a double dissociation with prosopagnosia. Brain (2003) 126 (4): 889-907. doi: 10.1093/brain/awg086 http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/126/4/889.full

Weiss, Peter H. and Fink, Gereon R. Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex. Brain (2009) 132 (1): 65-70. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn304 First published online: November 21, 2008. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/132/1/65.full

Wikipedia contributors Delusional misidentification syndrome. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Delusional_misidentification_syndrome&oldid=364074060

Wikipedia contributors Face perception. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Face_perception&oldid=397226066

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform face area. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_face_area&oldid=378670842

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_gyrus&oldid=400014320

Wikipedia contributors Hallucination. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hallucination&oldid=405603431

Wikipedia contributors Prosopagnosia.Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Prosopagnosia&oldid=400314172

 

Face recognition tests

MIT’s Face to Face Online Study http://facetoface.mit.edu/

“Test My Memory” from Faceblind.org Including “Online Cambridge Face Memory Test” and “Famous Faces” http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/

“Test My Brain” Including “Face Recognition, Emotion Perception, and Personality” and “Can you name that face?” and “Beauty and the eye of the beholder” http://www.testmybrain.org/

BBC Science Face Memory Test  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/