Monthly Archives: April 2011

Interesting sights of Guildford

When people who have prosopagnosia explain how they get by in life with a substandard ability to recognize people by their faces, they often cite other features of people which can be distinctive enough for positive identification. The voice is an excellent identifying feature, but it only works within earshot when the person is talking. Some prosopagnosics identify others by distinctive walks. I believe it is possible to identify people by seeing a distinctive collection of details that can in themselves be more or less distinctive, a mode of identification that involves both looking at many details and seeing an overall pattern. The distinctive details can be just about any part of the body. Family ties can be seen in some teeth, a nice-looking set of teeth or crooked teeth, but not straightened teeth. A person’s overall build and bodily proportions can be very distinctive. Feet and ears can be memorable. Some people have elbows that really stick out. Even something as plain and overlooked as a back can catch the eye.

I often become scenically lost after seeing people off to the airport. I usually end up travelling through Midland and Guildford, looking around at the sights. Guildford is a pretty, peaceful place, with the historical old boys’ school, the disused weigh-station, the railway crossing that looks like a death-trap and lots of very old buildings that have been done up as restaurants or still operate as shops or hotels. Despite the interesting sights, I just didn’t feel like stopping for a visit. I’ve developed a bit of an aversion to historical places that look a bit forgotten, and prestigious old suburbs that look as though they are designed for the wealthy aged. I’ve recently had reason to visit an exclusive old part of the Western suburbs, and for me places like these and Guildford feel a bit too much like a museum, or a memento mori.

So I kept cruising out of Guildford, in the middle of a sunny weekday, but I was forced to roll to a stop at some traffic lights. A bus was pulled up beside me, and then a bloke on a motorbike stopped between us and struck up a conversation with the bus driver, who was very much exposed by an open window. I looked across and the appearance of the back of the motorbike rider struck me as familiar and interesting, but I never saw his face. The way his once-navy-blue-coloured t-shirt had faded to a speckled grey pattern from exposure to fabric-destroying salt in sweat and UV rays is something that I’ve seen before on the back of an interesting man who I know, who also happens to have a passion for motor bikes. The bike rider’s ridged and muscular back was another feature that these men have in common. With the exception of the odd young buck, normal men have backs that are pretty much flat from side to side, but the motor bike rider and the man who I know have backs with a deep depression down the centre and firm-looking mountain-ranges of muscle on either side of this valley. The man who I know is one of a small minority of blokes who are naturally and mysteriously blessed with a hard physique well into middle age, despite never playing sport, nor going near any gymnasium, and no use of steroid supplements. The most scruffy appearance of the motor-bike rider in Guildford made me doubt that his muscular back was the result of a membership of any health club, and I doubt that there are too many places or groups that would accept this rag-tag as a member, with the possible exception of a bikie club. The motorbike rider had an untidy style that is often associated with bikies, but he didn’t really fit the stereotype. His helmet was coloured, not black, his clothing didn’t look like a bikie uniform, and his bike couldn’t have been one of those excessively noisy ones favoured by bikie types, because he was having a conversation over the top of the sound of it running. I wondered whether I was looking at a man who is individually too wild for any group, and soon after that, I don’t know exactly why, I felt sure that I was looking at Adrian.

Adrian, otherwise known as “Mad Dog” or “Mad Adrian” once had a fan club of thousands on Facebook, but no one even knew what his full name was.  He has been the subject of many true stories of first-hand sightings and numerous urban legends, indeed he could be described as a Western Australian urban legend. I remembered that the Midland area is a known haunt of Adrian, who for many years has displayed the interesting habit of roaming the streets on a bicycle or in more recent times a motorbike, barking, growling, yelling or swearing at drivers and pedestrians. I believe it must have been Adrian who I saw a very long time ago when I was in my teens or early 20s, somewhere in the Western non-mall section of Hay Street in Perth. There was a young man with a beard and scruffy curly light brown hair walking beside his bicycle barking loudly at startled shoppers, a hilarious sight when the look of terror isn’t on your own face.

The man on the motorbike didn’t yell or bark, but I knew there was something interesting about him. The lights went green and the bus and I took off, and I expected the bloke on the bike would zoom way ahead of us, but it appeared that he kept talking and keeping pace with the bus. I veered slightly out of my lane to pass safely.

A while later in hindsight I wondered – why did Mr Muscles on the motor bike like to socialize while in charge of a moving motor vehicle amongst traffic? I was recently stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident involving a motorbike rider who was seen lying on the road not moving. Motorbike riding is not a safe mode of transport at the best of times. One could argue that motorbikes are for madmen, but it is also a mode of transport that preserves the sense that one is still in touch with the world as one travels through it. Did the man on the motorbike like to chat while on a bike so that he could make a fast escape if the conversation was not to his liking? Does he want to be among people while still controlling the distance between himself and the rest of the human race?

I later remembered that I had once seen a photograph of a man identified as “Mad Dog” in a book of photographs of Midland, and at the time I had been struck by the muscularity of his physique. They still have that book at the library. The information given in the brief caption of the photograph suggests that “Mad Dog” has had a difficult life. His face is partially obscured in the black and white photo, but I could see that his body and unkempt hair look the same as the motorbike rider sighted in Guildford. He is wearing a faded t-shirt that was once a dark colour, which is so degraded by wear that it is spotted with small holes. Clearly this is a man who likes to get his full money’s worth out of budget-priced casual attire. In this photo “Mad Dog” is holding a bicycle. I have never seen such a healthy-looking marginalized person in all my life.  I have got to wonder if there is a link between the muscles and the marginalization. These days there seems to be nothing more unfashionable than unpolished, wild masculinity. It appears that the winners in our society are the smooth-talkers and the pen-pushers with pencil necks and flat backs. I’m sure they have comfy lives and have lots of money, but they never get mistaken for legends.

A link to a photograph of Adrian on Facebook – a poor image of his “back and crack”, wearing the same faded blue t-shirt

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=55948823003#!/photo.php?fbid=1339919704060&set=o.55948823003&type=1&theater

Reference

Gentile, Andrew Midland, a Swan Valley town:  images from the passing of an era during the last years to century’s end. (text and photographs by Andrew Gentile), A. Gentile, 2002.

Some Facebook groups about “Mad Dog” Adrian of Midland

We love you, Mad Adrian

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=55948823003

Mad dog (of midland) fan club….waaagh!

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&gid=64173396775

I’v been terrorised by “MAD DOG”

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=100183776716076

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Hidden taste disorders in Australian children a public health crisis?

In this blog I have written about a number of different disorders of perception that can go undiagnosed, and here is another one. Taste disorders are the inability to properly identify one or more of the tastes sweet, salty, bitter, umami (savoury) or sour. I know that more complex tastes are percieved by the sense of smell, so loss of the ability to percieve those would presumably not be a taste disorder, but a smell disorder of which there are a number of different types. According to the interesting ABC News article cited below taste disorders can be caused by a number of different medical conditions including  Bell’s palsy, renal failure, diabetes and middle ear infections. It is suggested that taste disorders can cause obesity, so I imagine that a nasty feedback loop could develop, with obesity causing diabetes, the diabetes causing a taste disorder, and the taste disorder making the obesity worse which makes the diabetes worse etc etc. Serious stuff! It appears that taste and smell disorders can both be symptoms of diseases, so if you find that your perception of the world of smells or tastes has altered, it might be a good idea to see your doctor about it.

Michael Edwards Taste disorders linked to childhood obesity. ABC News. Updated April 18, 2011. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/04/18/3194146.htm

National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Taste Disorders http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/smelltaste/taste.html

Amusia or tone-deafness can be tested for and diagnosed in childhood

Amusia can be diagnosed using a battery of tests, the Montreal Battery for the Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA; Peretz, 2003). The first documented case of congenital amusia in childhood is described in the paper listed below. Amusia is one of a number of disorders of perception that I have written about in this blog, including prosopagnosia and agnosia for scenes, that have been theorized as being caused by a lack of connections in the brain, which could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia. I guess that amusia, a difficulty in perceiving music, could be seen as the opposite of perfect pitch, which is an ability that appears to be associated with synaesthesia and autism.

References

Marie-Andrée Lebrun, Patricia Moreau, Andréane McNally-Gagnon, Geneviève Mignault Goulet & Isabelle Peretz Congenital amusia in childhood: A case study. Cortex. (article in press) doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2011.02.018   http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B8JH1-529MVTS-1&_user=10&_coverDate=03/04/2011&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=gateway&_origin=gateway&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1726989201&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=43fef257d6f2b1bfce00e36d3badb560&searchtype=a

Lauren Stewart Congenital amusia (quick guide) Current Biology. Volume 16 Issue 21 7 November 2006. Pages R904-R906.    doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.09.054  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VRT-4M8WTCF-7&_user=10&_coverDate=11%2F07%2F2006&_rdoc=20&_fmt=high&_orig=browse&_origin=browse&_zone=rslt_list_item&_srch=doc-info(%23toc%236243%232006%23999839978%23636547%23FLA%23display%23Volume)&_cdi=6243&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_ct=32&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=7d8218bc925dd41d5cb5c44a89ac76b4&searchtype=a

Delosis Research Technology Musical Listening Test http://www.delosis.com/listening/home.html

Just found interesting paper about Williams syndrome and the fusiform face area

It appears that having a fusiform face area (FFA) that is twice the normal size does not give people with Williams syndrome (WS) super powers of face recognition or expression recognition, but I’m not sure we can be completely sure that people with Williams do not have any special gift in reading faces, as other researchers have found fault with the test that was used in this study to measure face recognition ability. Williams syndrome is a genetic syndrome that is associated with  intellectual deficits, “heightened emotionality”, “hypersociability” and a special love of music. Dr Oliver Sacks wrote an interesting chapter about Williams syndrome in his book Musicophilia. I do not have Williams syndrome, and this syndrome does not run in my family. One thing that I do believe that I and some family members share in common with people who have Williams syndrome is our great love of music, despite a lack of musical education or training.

“The atypically large FFA volume that we found in WS was positively correlated with apparently normal performance levels on a standardized face-identity recognition task (Benton test) in the same participants. This finding is analogous to electrophysiological reports of atypically large N200 in WS, which is correlated with performance on the Benton test (Mills et al., 2000). However, in our experiments, the correlation between rFFA size and Benton scores reached statistical significance only after excluding two WS participants with the noisiest BOLD signals. The similarity in the mean performance across TD and WS in the Benton test may be due to insufficient sensitivity of the Benton test in detecting subtle variations in face-recognition proficiency (Duchaine and Nakayama, 2004).”

Has anyone ever done a study in which people who have Williams syndrome have been given the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT)? I’d love to read that.

Golijeh Golarai, Sungjin Hong, Brian W. Haas, Albert M. Galaburda, Debra L. Mills, Ursula Bellugi, Kalanit Grill-Spector & Allan L. Reiss The Fusiform Face Area is Enlarged in Williams Syndrome. Journal of Neuroscience. 12 May 2010, 30(19): 6700-6712; doi: 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.4268-09.2010
http://www.jneurosci.org/content/30/19/6700.full

Duchaine, Bradley & Nakayama, Ken Developmental prosopagnosia and the Benton Facial Recognition Test. Neurology. April 13, 2004 vol. 62 no. 7 1219-1220. doi: 10.1212/01.WNL.0000118297.03161.B3 http://www.neurology.org/content/62/7/1219.abstract

“The Benton Facial Recognition Test is used for clinical and research purposes, but evidence suggests that it is possible to pass the test with impaired face discrimination abilities.”

Human Brain Atlas

The Human Brain Atlas from the Allen Institute for Brain Science is only based on two male brains. How their brain atlas relates to the brain of an adult female synaesthete is anyone’s guess.

http://www.brain-map.org/

World’s first human brain map unveiled by Hayley Crawford New Scientist http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2011/04/worlds-first-human-brain-map-u.html

The saddest face of the week

I still see in my mind’s eye the face of a man who served me in a take-away food shop at a bit before noon a few days ago. I could see that somewhere he had a quite long, narrow face, but it was being swallowed up by a heavy, cumbersome and unattractive layer of excess weight. That wasn’t the reason why this face grabbed my attention – it was the look of a miserable man feeling overcome by stress or maybe physical discomfort that I can’t forget. It was the beginning of the busiest part of the day, he needed a shave, and he had withdrawn from any type of social contact. I do hope the rest of his week has been a much happier time.

Reading in the brain and spotting things in the wild

I wish I had more time to write about the really interesting book Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention by Stanislas Dehaene. It isn’t a new book, I believe it came out in 2009, but if you are interested in reading as a cognitive ability, or have an interest in dyslexia or are generally interested in the workings of the brain, I would recommend this book. I believe the author is an important researcher, and thus is highly qualified to write this book, which sets him apart from many other authors of popular science and popular psychology books. Dehaene identifies and solves the great mystery of reading. According to my understanding of this book,  reading is generally processed in the same parts of the brain for all readers, so it appears that these parts of the brain have evolved to be specialized for reading. But this is not possible – humans have only had writing symbols and reading for a very recent time in the history of our species. Dehaene solves this mystery, and you can read about this solution in this book.

I especially like this book because within it I have found the answers to a number of mysteries that I have been wondering about for a long time. Is there a link between the synaesthesia and the above-average reading abilities of some members of my family? It appears that the answer is “yes”. Brain hyperconnectivity is the best explanation of the physical basis of synaesthesia, and Dehaene explains in his book  that “a “bushy” vision of the brain, with several functions that operate in parallel, has replaced the early serial model” of how the brain operates, and this bushy model is very applicable to reading. Synaesthetes have brains that are bushy, at least in some regions, and reading requires a bushy brain. We should therefore not be surprised if at least some types of synaesthesia  (there are certainly different types) are associated with superior or precocious reading ability. The descriptions of research on the visual processing of objects and faces in monkeys that can be found in chapter three of the book are particularly interesting to me because they seem to be a description of the neural basis of some unusual aspects of The Strange Phenomenon, the great mystery that inspired me to start this blog.

In this book I found striking pictorial explanation of why there seems to be a link between reading ability and face reading ability in our family. When I saw in Figure 2.6 of that book on page 74 the way that the regions in the underside of the brain that are specialized to detect objects, written words, faces and “houses” are situated right next-door to each other and overlap, I was pretty amazed and knew this explained a lot about the abilities of myself and some of my kin. We must have an unusual level of development in this region, which I guess must be the fusiform gyrus, but isn’t given a label in the book. This overlap of brain areas specialized for faces and “houses” would explain why prosopagnosia and agnosia for scenes appear to be often found together. I believe that it also indicates that there could be a link between reading ability and face recognition ability, at least in some people. At the website for this book this figure is labelled as Figure 2.1 and can be viewed here: http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/img/small/Diapositive12.jpg

This is a quote from the caption to Figure 2.6: “Reading always activates an area located between the peak responses to faces and to objects”. I think this would explain why we have advanced readers and also a person who is unusually good at reading and recognizing faces in our family. I think it also could explain some of our childhood hobbies. When I was a child I had one of those hobbies that involves spotting, inspecting, evaluating and collecting found objects from natural environments. This was a highly visual hobby (and also quite tactile), and it was a wonderful thing because it was a pathway towards a great love of nature and a fascination with science and biology. It was also good for fresh air, sunshine and exercise, things that the lifestyles of kids seem to lack these days. One of our kids also had a keen childhood hobby that also involved an element of seeing and identifying different types of objects within the same category. The difference was that these objects were technological, not natural, and are way too big and expensive to collect. All the same, it could be described as a “spotting” hobby, like trainspotting, birdspotting etc. There is a link between “spotting” type hobbies or skills and face recognition, because both face recognition and “within-category identification” are done in the fusiform gyrus. I’m not sure where it was that I read that some study found that car salesmen were found to use the same part of the brain as is used for face recognition when they were given the task of identifying motor vehicles, an area of professional expertise for this group.

Why do people have “spotting” hobbies that are not directly useful? Why has natural selection resulted in people who like to do apparently useless actvities such as looking at trains or collecting shells? It isn’t too hard to think of an explanation in terms of evolutionary adaptations. The ability to visually spot, identify and pursue or avoid objects (animals, vegetable foodstuffs) in natural environments was probably one of the most essential skills that a caveman/cavelady could have had, to find food and to avoid being food for some larger animal. It would be a big ask to expect that modern humans should completely break this habit that has most certainly been highly selected for in the human gene pool.

Today just out of curiosity I picked a few berries off a Rhagodia baccata plant during my morning walk (I like to know the proper scientific names of certain categories of things), and the berries tasted truly dreadful, but a bit sweet. The taste was almost as horrible as the taste of the native quandong fruit, which is regarded by some as a type of food. I’m certainly glad that I don’t have to rely on my prehistoric food-gathering skills.

References

Dehaene, Stanislas Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention. Viking, 2009. http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/intro.htm 

Full-colour figures from this wonderful book: http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/figures.htm

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_gyrus&oldid=419089814

The “Enhanced Perceptual Functioning Model” of autism supported by meta-analysis, and mentions face processing and hyperlexia

A most interesting recent quote from Canadian researcher Dr Laurent Mottron about a recently published meta analysis of published functional imaging studies of autistic subjects :

“We synthesized the results of neuroimaging studies using visual stimuli from across the world. The results are strong enough to remain true despite the variability between the research designs, samples and tasks, making the perceptual account of autistic cognition currently the most validated model. The stronger engagement of the visual system, whatever the task, represents the first physiological confirmation that enhanced perceptual processing is a core feature of neural organization in this population. We now have a very strong statement about autism functioning which may be ground for cognitive accounts of autistic perception, learning, memory and reasoning.”

This not a new theory about autism, I believe it was first set out in a published journal paper in 2006. This theory appears to have some similarities with the “Intense World” theory of autism that was the creation of Henry Markram, Tania Rinaldi and Kamila Markram, and would explain the same sorts of phenomena that the intense world theory would explain. The theory also quite obviously brings to mind the popular idea that autistic people are “visual thinkers”, an idea which has been popularized by the autistic author Temple Grandin. I’m not sure if she was the original source of this idea.

I noticed that in the abstract of the paper by Mottron and colleagues hyperlexia and “atypical” face processing in autism are mentioned, while the general thrust of the abstract and the press release seems to suggest that autistics are or should be better than non-autistic people in visual processing. So what does that mean? Are autistic people better or worse than non-autistic people at recognizing and interpreting faces, and at reading text? Almost everything that I’ve read about autism suggests that autistic people are impaired. There seems to be some inconsistency somewhere. I just know that in our family we have synaesthetes who are gifted or clever in visual recognition tasks such as reading, recognizing faces, identifying facial expressions and identifying different types within categories of objects (a task that activates the same part of the brain as face recognition). Is there some type of relationship between our synaesthesia and autism?

I hope to get a hold of the full text of this paper and search it visually with a great attention to detail. I’ll let you know what I see.

References

Samson, Fabienne, Mottron, Laurent, Soulieres, Isabelle & Zeffiro, Thomas A. Enhanced visual functioning in autism: an ALE meta-analysis. Human Brain Mapping. Article first published online: 4 APR 2011 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.21307 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.21307/abstract

Raillant-Clark, William New research explains autistic’s exceptional visual abilities. EurekAlert Release date: April 4th 2011. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-04/uom-nre032811.php

Raillant-Clark, William Spatial distribution. EurekAlert (This is an image accompanying a media release. “This is the spatial distribution of regions showing more task-related activity in autistics than non-autistics for the three processing domains: “faces” in red, “objects” in green, and “words” in blue.“) http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/30851.php?from=181850

Mottron, Laurent, Dawson, Michelle, Soulieres, Isabelle, Hubert, Benedicte & Burack, Jake Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Vol. 36, No. 1, January 2006 DOI 10.1007/s10803-005-0040-7 Published Online: February 2, 2006 http://affect.media.mit.edu/Rgrads/Articles/pdfs/Mottron-etal-2006-EPF.pdf  http://www.springerlink.com/content/f1r60p2553n12565/

Markram, Henry, Rinaldi, Tania, Markram, Kamila The Intense World Syndrome – an Alternative Hypothesis for Autism. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2007 November; 1(1): 77–96. Published online 2007 October 15. Prepublished online 2007 September 1. doi: 10.3389/neuro.01.1.1.006.2007. PMCID: PMC2518049 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2518049/

No Quarter by Led Zeppelin

When I listen to this amazing song from the 1970s, the clever-sounding guitar riff looks like a tribal style design with slightly chaotically interwoven lines, like the type of thing that you might see tattooed onto the shoulder-blade of the bogan in front of you in a queue in a Centrelink office. Other versions of this song by other bands do not create this visual woven effect synaesthesia; they are not special like this piece of music. Jimmy Page knew what he was doing!

After thinking about this a bit, the tricky, complex-sounding guitar riff of the original version of this song by Led Zeppelin, which evokes visual synaesthesia of the tortuous, twisted lines goes well with the theme in the lyrics of the song. The lyrics describe a difficult, dangerous journey that could well fail. In contrast the version of this song by Tool has this guitar riff played to sound powerful and with timing that sounds dramatic rather than fiddly and difficult. In my opinion the way this riff is played in the Tool version is a mindless default to the standard powerful and dramatic heavy metal sound. Unfortunately, this is at odds with the theme in the lyrics of this song, and overall, the Tool version tells an entirely different story, a story that has already been told countless times before. I wish Tool hadn’t bothered.

Original Led Zeppelin version

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/RKOngTfTMs0?fs=1&hl=en_US

Tool version

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/xzKWge4rLfI?fs=1&hl=en_US

Super-recognizer test? Forget it mate!

I’ve noticed that quite consistently searches that lead people to this blog appear to be people searching for a test relevant to being a super-recognizer, which is a person who has an elite level of ability in recognizing faces, a most useful skill in many ways, and a skill that would be relevant to a number of jobs. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who is hoping to gain access to a super-recognizer test, but the fact is that I only know of one test that I know enough about it to say that it could decisively separate super-recognizers from simply good face recognizers, and I have been unsuccessfully been trying to gain access to that test since September of 2010. The test is the Before They Were Famous Test (BTWF), and it was one of the two face recognition tests that were used in the study that was written-up in the science journal paper that launched the concept of the super-recognizer in 2009. I’d love to get to do the BTWF Test, even though there would most likely be subtle cultural differences that might impair my performance on that test. I believe the BTWF Test is a test that uses the faces of celebrities, and I’m sure it was created outside of Australia, and so I would assume that those celebrities would not include any Australian celebrities, and I am an Australian. Nevertheless, I was keen to have a go at this test. I was so keen that I volunteered as a study subject at a local Australian university’s psychology department to do some face recognition tests. To cut a long story short, I got to do two other tests, but not the BTWF Test, and I’m still many months later waiting to be told of the results of one of those tests. Just to explain my interest in face recognition – in 2010 I got a surprise after finding that I got perfect scores on the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) and also the Famous Faces test, and then I realised that I could well be a super-recognizer. I’ve been messed around so much by Australian and overseas academics that I don’t think I’d trust them enough to do any further participation in research, and I think there is something strange about the way that I’ve been dealt with by researchers in the area of face recognition.

I find it a curious fact that of all of the researchers who I’ve told that I am a synaesthete and am willing to provide test results that show it and I also suspect that I’m a super-recognizer, not one, including the university researcher whom I’ve met first-hand, has asked to see any of my test results regarding face memory or synaesthesia. Anyone with some familiarity with the published literature about synaesthesia would surely figure that super-recognizing could well be another cognitive advantage associated with synaesthesia. Do face recognition researchers lack a basic knowledge of synaesthesia research, another area of the neuropsychology of sensory perception? Surely not. Perhaps I have misunderstood the nature of the work that university researchers do. Their job is to do highly structured research studies, with the aim of getting their reports of those studies published in science journals with a good reputation and status. I believe there is considerable pressure to achieve this and do it as often as possible. So perhaps one should not be surprised to find that researchers are only interested in non-academic, non-student people if they can fill the role of being a standardized study subject.

I believe that study subjects like me who do not conform to what appears to be the current scientific view of super-recognizers as “simply the high end of a broad distribution of face recognition ability” (Russell, Duchaine & Nakayama 2009), people like me who are synaesthetes and who score very high in tests of face recognition, are a threat to the current academic status quo, in which the conventional view is that atypical or abnormal brain structure or brain function is associated with deficits in face recognition, and good face recognition ability is taken to be a marker for normality and health and all things nice. A great many studies of face recognition have been inspired by the idea that poor ability to recognize faces and facial expressions are fundamental features of autism. Autism research is supposed to be very well-funded. Studies of face recognition that are promoted as research into the causes of autism would, I guess, attract funding. While not all autistic people are synaesthetes and not all synaesthetes are autistic, there does appear to be some type of link between autism and synaesthesia, so the idea that synaesthetes should be poor at face recognition would be consistent with the above theoretical framework. In fact, the idea that there might be a link between synaesthesia and prosopagnosia appears to be quite a common belief among academics and interested ordinary people. This is based on anecdotes and some very speculative early writing about synaesthesia. So finding a synaesthete super-recognizer who is also very good at identifying facial expressions could upset this apple cart. In any case, those nice red shiny apples seem to be destined for a bruising because of ideas that are being explored by some synaesthesia researchers who are contrasting rather than linking synaesthesia with poor face recognition and other agnosias (Mitchell 2011) or are finding connections between various types of synaesthesia and various types of enhanced perception (Banissy, Garrido et al 2011; Banissy, Walsh & Ward 2009).

The other test of face recognition that was used in the study described in Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama’s 2009 paper about super-recognizers was the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), which comes in a short and a long form. Both the short and long form are used in that study. It appears that the long form of this test was created to measure a wider range of face recognition abilities, but as can easily be seen in the paper, the long form was quite a failure in this respect. Non-super-recognizers did not fall a long way behind super-recognizers in the CFMT Long Form that much more than they did in the CFMT Short Form. Basically, super-recognizers got perfect of near-perfect scores in the 72 question CFMT Short Form, which is freely available to do over the internet, but a couple of other study subjects also got close to perfect scores in the CFMT.

So, the only thing that I can recommend to anyone who wants to know if they are a super-recognizer is to have a crack at the CFMT, read about the experiences of super-recognizers, and you might also wish to consider whether you have synaesthesia or have any brain-based special abilities or talents such as perfect pitch or high IQ. The Synesthesia Battery is a test for a number of colour-related types of synaesthesia. And remember, the whole concept of the “super-recognizer” is a thing that some academics only recently came up with. I believe the official view of super-recognizers is that they (we?) are only the extreme end of a bell curve representing natural variation in one area of ability. I personally believe that super-recognizers are probably qualitatively different from others rather than merely being quantitatively different – I believe super-recognizer ability could be an effect of synaesthesia or local hyperconnectivity, but I still wouldn’t like to say at what cut-off point in test scores super-recognizers can be identified.

P.S. December 2011

It appears that the CFMT is no longer available from two of the websites that I have linked to, and the only freely available online access to the CFMT is probably through a research study done by researchers at the MIT:  http://facetoface.mit.edu/   If you live in or near London then you might be able to go along to the superrecognizers study currently being conducted at the Science Museum by researchers from the Uni of East London and do some tests as study subjects:  http://www.superrecognizers.com/

I have tried contacting professional psychologists in WA who have private practices to see if any of them can offer access to any face recognition testing. I found a general lack of comprehension, and it appears that they generally haven’t heard of prosopagnosia, let alone super-recognizers. Apparently there is some face memory or face recognition test that is an element of an IQ test and/or vocational aptitude testing. I have not been given any details about this test or tests, and God only knows if it is of any value. There are a number of old face recognition tests, but it appears that the CFMT and the BTWF tests are the only ones that are cheat-proof and currently used by face recognition researchers. I’ve never heard of either of these tests being used as elements of vocational or IQ testing, but who knows?

The idea that superior face recognition ability could be important in employment is an idea that has been proven to be true in the case of police work, a documented example would be the elite squad of super-recognizer police officers in London’s Metropolitan Police force, which was the subject of an interesting article in the UK’s Sunday Times in November 2011. Despite the proven utility of superrecognizers in at least one important job, the idea that this is a valuable work skill appears to be an idea well ahead of our times here in sleepy Western Australia, where our time zone is two years behind the rest of the Anglophone world (except in mining). There is not only the issue that we are behind the times here, there is also the big issue of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias recognized in psychology “in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes”, to quote from Wikipedia. The Dunning-Kruger effect can also negatively affect capable people, in the opposite way “Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.” So incompetent people can have unjustified self-confidence while more capable people can under-estimate their relative superiority as a result of being ignorant or deceived about the actual level of ability of others. I would argue that the Dunning-Kruger effect is very applicable to face recognition ability. I’m sure there are many people with milder developmental prosopagnosia who don’t understand their disability, and I know myself that I never thought of myself as having superior face memory until I tried some online face recognition tests in the pursuit of any clue to the mystery of The Strange Phenomenon. I believe the full extent of the problem goes beyond not understanding one’s self. I believe that only a super-recognizer is able to understand the possibilities and advantages of this very specific type of superior visual processing. I’ve found that many people who I’ve spoken to about super-recognizers doubt that any human could perform better than current face recognition technology, an assumption that appears to be incorrect, and is probably based on ignorance. It should be clear to anyone that good face recognition ability is an essential requirement in policing and has uses in security and detective work, but I doubt that most people would guess that super-recognizing could have medical applications, can be more useful than current face recognition technology and might also have applications in tasks that involve identifying kinship relationships, possibly to do with tracing lost relatives or family history research. To independently realise all of this, a person would have to see what a super-recognizer sees, an experience that is denied to most people. If most people, including most psychologists, have no idea of the possible utility of super-recognizing, why would anyone bother testing for it or identifying it?

If you suspect that you might be a super-recognizer, and wish to have this tested and certified by a professional psychologist or have it verified by participating in university research done by a recognized expert in the field of face recognition, I hope you live in London. Your only other option appears to be taking a look at the MIT study, and taking a screen-shot print-out of any test results. Good luck!

References

Banissy, Michael J., Garrido, Lucia, Kusnir, Flor, Duchaine, Bradley, Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Superior Facial Expression, But Not Identity Recognition, in Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1820-1824. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5759-09.2011 http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/31/5/1820

Banissy, Michael J., Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Enhanced sensory perception in synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. 2009 Jul;196(4):565-71. Epub 2009 Jun 17. http://www.springerlink.com/content/406581u3507un270/   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19533108

Grimston, Jack Eagle-Eye of the Yard can spot rioters by their ears. Sunday Times, The, 20.11.2011, p12,13-12,13, 1; Language: EN Section: News Edition: 01 EBSCOhost Accession number 7EH53940939 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/  This interesting article is behind a paywall, so you might try EBSCOHost from your local piblic library.

Mitchell, Kevin J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization. Current Opinion in Genetics and Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568?dopt=Abstract

Russell, Richard, Yue, Xiaomin, Nakayama, Ken and Tootell, Roger B. H.  Neural differences between developmental prosopagnosics and super-recognizers.Journal of Vision. August 6, 2010 vol. 10 no. 7 article 582 doi: 10.1167/10.7.582http://www.journalofvision.org/content/10/7/582.short

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

Wikipedia contributors Dunning–Kruger effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect&oldid=466983876

Tests

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

“Test My Memory” from Faceblind.org – used to offer the CFMT in the past http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/

“Test My Brain” – used to offer the CFMT in the past, could try the 5 minute “Famous Faces” test http://www.testmybrain.org/

BBC Science Face Memory Test – this test no substitute for the CFMT http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/

The Synesthesia Battery http://www.synesthete.org/

Further reading about my dealings with psychology researchers:

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/