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/

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