What follows is a summary of dealings between scientists and myself during the past year, including testing at a university, in my not very successful quest to answer my question “Am I a super-recognizer?”
September 14th 2010 I sent an email to a prominent face perception/prosopagnosia researcher in the US who I will give the name “A”. This is the text that I wrote and sent (unspellchecked):
“For quite a while I’ve been having some unsual experiences that seem to be related to face recognition. Out of curiousity I have done some online face recognition tests, and I was surprised that I got some high and perfect scores. This led me to read with interest the 2009 journal paper about super-recognizers. Some of the experiences reported by these people appear to be similar to my experiences. I would like to have a go at two of the tests used in that study – the Before They Were Famous Test and the Cambridge Face Recognition Test Long Form. Would that be possible? I would be most grateful if you could help. I live in Australia. I’ve already done the short form test.”
September 15th 2010 Sent email to researcher B in the US with same text as the above email.
September 15th 2010 From B a brief and polite reply referring me to another researcher/academic in the US (“C”) who was given a copy of my email.
September 17th 2010 Got brief polite reply from the US researcher C explaining that the test that I wanted to do can’t be done over the internet but testing through a local university might be possible.
September 16th 2010 (dates out of order due to differing time zones?) To C I sent a brief polite reply listing the universities that are local to me.
September 18th 2010 Reply from C who wrote would get back to me. Emailing tests also a possibility.
September 20th 2010 Reply from A apology for delay–busy time at work. Referred me to researcher C.
September 21st 2010 I emailed A to tell A that I was in contact with C who might be able to help.
September 26th 2010 I sent an email to the cognitive science department at the Australian eastern states university for which I filled in two long questionnaires a couple of years ago for synaesthesia researchers. I explained that I thought I might be a “super-recognizer” and I’d like to get access to difficult tests of face recognition if possible, from Perth, and I mentioned that I’m a synaesthete. This email got no reply.
October 9th 2010 Sent an email to an Australian researcher who has published research about prosopagnosia (disability in face recognition) at the above Australian eastern states university. This email got no reply.
October 17th 2010 To C in the US I sent a very brief email “Any luck?” I received no reply.
October 18th 2010 I emailed a face perception researcher D at a WA university explaining that I thought I might be a super-recognizer, would like to access the “Before They Were Famous Test” if possible, had contacted overseas researchers to this end, am a synaesthete who could show results from The Synesthesia Battery, and believed there was a connection between my synaesthesia and my apparently top ability in face recognition.
October 19th 2010 Reply email from D explaining that testing could be done with different tests that they have which should give similar information. I was referred to research assistant E.
October 19th 2010 I sent brief reply to D.
October 20th 2010 Brief reply from D.
October 20th to November 2nd 2011 Seven emails from research assistant (RA), and me replying, to schedule and reschedule a date for me to go to the WA university for testing at a time that suited all.
November 5th 2010 I went to the university and did the testing. I met D and RA. The face recognition tests that I did were both on a computer.
Details of the testing that I did at a WA university on November 5th 2010
As I recall it, I was asked to fill in a consent form (pen and paper), two questionnaires (pen and paper) and to do two computerised tests of face recognition.
One of the questionnaires asked about my exposure to people of a Chinese racial heritage during my life. This was obviously to help interpret scores of one of the tests, in which faces were males of Asian appearance. The other questionnaire was presented as a questionnaire about personality (I think this might have been the title of the questionnaire). Many of the questions seemed familiar. I believe the questionnaire was the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), which I did just out of interest a number of years ago when I found it in an appendix of a pop psychology book which I had read. I don’t recall any mention of autism in the consent form or on the questionnaire itself, or verbally from the research assistant.
One of the tests of face recognition that I did at the university was a version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). The faces were all Caucasian males. I recall that some (maybe all?) of the faces in the test that I did at the university were different faces than those in the online test that I had already done. At the time I assumed that it was an alternative short version of the CFMT, but in hindsight I now wonder if it could possibly have been the long form of the CFMT.
The other face recognition test that I did was apparently a test created at the university. I recall the faces as young male adults of an Asian race, but according to info sent by email from the university this test also had Caucasian faces. I recall they had fairly negative facial expressions (sad, angry) and they were not an attractive bunch. I recall I had to compare faces initially viewed from a front, full-face angle with faces later presented from a profile (90 degrees) angle. After being presented with faces to memorize on the computer I was required to do a visual search task with pen and paper for a specific time period, presumably to prevent me from using any conscious and deliberate method for remembering the faces. I found this test so difficult that I don’t believe that this test reliably engaged the normal process of face recognition. I recall doing this test using conscious strategies such as comparing specific facial features or skin colour, rather than experiencing or not experiencing that sudden natural feeling of familiarity that marks natural face recognition. I wouldn’t be surprised if I scored barely over a chance score. Many different factors could be suggested to explain the difficulty of this test. I have read that people naturally have a bias towards and an expertise in recognizing faces of one’s own race, so this would make the Asian faces trickier for me, as I’ve not been exposed much to Asian faces in my life. I have also read that there is a bias against recognizing unattractive faces. In a journal paper about the CFMT I read that face recognition works best on faces viewed from the front, so identifying faces presented in profile should be challenging. I believe that my own natural advantage in face recognition involves semi-automatically personifying faces, or ascribing personalities to the faces, using the same brain mechanisms that give rise to my ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia. I suspect that the cold expressions, the unfamiliar race and the unattractive forms of the faces could have worked against this personifying process. The thing that I believe did the most to make this test difficult or a non-test was the use of a 90 degree profile angle for face recognition. I think it’s just too big an extrapolation to “know” a face from the profile after viewing it briefly from the front. This is also an unnatural task. Who socialises or chats while staring away at right angles from the person you are supposed to be engaging socially with? According to what I’ve read, there have been tests created by researchers intended as tests of face recognition that didn’t really work as such, and designing such a test isn’t as simple a task as one might think. If the test that I did at the university didn’t work as a face recognition test, I think it would still present an opportunity to discover more about the nature of face recognition, in pondering why it did not work, if this is the case.
I was given a small amount of money to cover my travel costs after the testing, and was thanked by a very nice and polite research assistant. After the testing researcher D and I had a brief chat in an office. We spoke about the influence of ethnic differences in appearance on face recognition testing. The researcher asked about the odd experience that sparked my interest in face recognition. It was difficult to explain, and I couldn’t mention any of the names attached to the faces involved. I spoke a bit about my synaesthesia, but the researcher didn’t seem terrifically interested. I said I was still keen to do the Before They Were Famous test. The researcher said that might be possible.
November 9th 2010 I sent email to RA asking if the test scores of mine were available yet.
November 9th 2010 Email from RA advised that she would be away till Nov. 23rd 2010.
November 9th 2010 I emailed D and asked if my test results were available yet.
November 10th 2010 D replied that RA was on leave and should be able to give results shortly after that date.
November 23rd 2010 Apologetic email from RA advising that results not yet processed but should be available at the end of the week.
November 24rd 2010 Sent email reminding RA that my results from The Synesthesia Battery can be shared electronically if they are interested.
November 26th 2010 Email from RA. Thanked for offer of scores from Synesthesia Battery but not needed at that stage. A summary of two tests that I completed was given. I was advised that my score in the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) was 96%. The RA did not specify whether I had done the long or short version of this test, and I had assumed that I’d done some short version of the test, so I didn’t ask about this. In hindsight it would be nice to know for sure exactly which version of the CFMT I did. I was advised that I scored 96% on this test, with an average score given as 78%. A score of 96% in the short form (72 items) would indicate that the subject is not a super-recognizer, while a score of 96% in the long version (102 items) would confirm that the subject is indeed a super-recognizer, but in my case there is the problem that I’ve already had practice doing the short form of the test. When I got this news I wondered about the score of 96% considering that I had already done the short CFMT twice (inadvertently done a second time as a part of a battery of tests available online) and had scored 100% both times. But the CFMT that I did at the university was not the same version that I did online.
A summary of the face test with male Asian-looking faces that I did at the university was given. The RA explained that the test is new and they did not yet have enough data to know what an average score is, so giving me my score would be meaningless. She advised that “a comment on your results” should be available shortly.
December 2nd 2010 I sent a brief email to RA asking about any news of the cross-race face recognition test.
December 3rd 2010 Reply from RA advising that they were still processing data and would give results as soon as possible, not sure when. I think this was the last contact I’ve had with anyone at this university.
December 4th 2010 My blog “Am I a super-recognizer?” begun with the publication of its first article, a description of The Strange Phenomenon.
December 20th 2010 I sent an email to researcher A with link to my new blog “Am I a super-recognizer?” which at the time mostly consisted of a description of The Strange Phenomenon. A brief correspondence followed in which A suggested a visual disturbance as an explanation, and I argued against that.
I have sent a number of emails to selected researchers in cognitive science/psychology all around the world with a link to my blog shortly after I created it. Some researchers replied with appreciative comments (by email). One of the researchers that I informed about my blog was from the Australian eastern states university that I had sent emails to in Sept-Oct 2010. That researcher left a brief comment at my blog.
To date no researcher that I’ve been in contact with has ever asked about my synaesthesia, or asked about my scores on The Synesthesia Battery or asked for professional access to my online scores (which can be arranged apparently).
I don’t receive feedback or comments about my blog from scientists/academics/researchers any more, but I have received some interesting comments from educated people from various corners of the world about complex types of synaesthesia that we have in common, phenomena that to my knowledge have not previously been described or studied by scientists. Science is much too important to be left to the scientists.
References and further reading
Duchaine, Brad & Nakayama, Ken The Cambridge Face Memory Test: Results for neurologically intact individuals and an investigation of its validity using inverted face stimuli and prosopagnosic participants. Neuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585. http://visionlab.harvard.edu/members/ken/Ken%20papers%20for%20web%20page/137neuropsychologiaDuchaine2006.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
Take the AQ test. Wired. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html
Wikipedia contributors Autism Spectrum Quotient. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Autism_Spectrum_Quotient&oldid=434143629
Wikipedia contributors Cross-race effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cross-race_effect&oldid=436739510
Costandi, Mo Why do people of other races all look alike? Neurophilosophy Guardian.co.uk August 15th 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/neurophilosophy/2011/aug/15/people-other-races-look-alike
Wilson, C. E., Brock. J., Burton, A. M., & Palermo, R. (in press). Recognition of own and other-race faces in autism spectrum disorder. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. http://sites.google.com/site/drjonbrock/publications/recognition-of-own–and-other-race-faces-in-autism-spectrum-disorder