Monthly Archives: April 2012

Listening to Heather Sellers’ autobiography

I’ve been listening to the interesting autobiography by prosopagnosic Heather Sellers, titled You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, in a compact disc format. I had wanted to borrow the book from the public library, but for some reason or another they decided to order it in a spoken word form. Perhaps they thought that face-blindness is a sub-set of ordinary blindness, and the readers who would be interested in the autobiography would have visual impairments or dyslexia. Actually, I’d like to know if there is any link between dyslexia and prosopagnosia, but I know for sure that there are plenty of prosopagnosics who do not report any issues with vision or reading at all.

I’ll admit that I haven’t found the time to listen to all nine discs. The content of disc number seven was particularly of interest to me, covering Ms Sellers’ discovery of her own prosopagnosia, the dreadful way that she was treated during the process of getting professionally diagnosed, in the time when prosopagnosia was thought of as a rare effect of stroke affecting mostly middle-aged men, and speculation about any possible link between her prosopagnosia and her mother’s mental illness. Some useful resources that Ms Sellers wrote about discovering were an academic reserch book by Andrew W. Young and the website Faceblind.org, which is still a very important resource about prosopagnosia. Ms Sellers contacted the face recognition researcher Brad Duchaine and also discovered an online community of prosopagnosics, mostly developmental cases who often saw prosopagnosia in family members, and some acting in the role of disability activist. Different approaches to disclosing prosopagnosia as a disability are touched upon. It’s interesting stuff for sure, and I thank Ms Sellers for sharing her story.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that as I listened to the CDs of Ms Sellers’ autobiography, as visual illustration of the story in my mind’s eye, my mind automatically retrieved some old visual memories from my past in Perth, Western Australia as settings for the story, even though they were probably not a close fit to the real settings of the real events described by the author Sellers from the US. For scenes set in the university in which Sellers was a student, my mind used my visual memories of the Joondalup Campus of the Edith Curtin University, specifically the lunch bar area next to a stairway. For scenes of the story that were set in residential areas my mind used old memories of old and run-down unrenovated two-story blocks of flats in Subiaco (which have probably been fixed up or demolished by now), and for interior shots of the author’s university residence my mind came up with some imagined spaces. Perhaps this effortless, involuntary and unconscious visualization while listening to a story is completely typical of the way all people listen to stories. Whether it is or not, it shows how visual memories are involuntarily and centrally involved with thinking processes that aren’t explicitly remembering or memory-related. Visual memory is not just a isolated function summoned up when we want to remember what something looked like. Visual memory is in the guts of cognition, it is more than a record of past sensory experiences, and this is why I am not surprised that visual memories come up so often (in my own experience) as synaesthesia inducers and concurrents associated with other cognitive functions that appear to have little relation with visual memory, such as fine-motor learned skills and thinking about very abstract concepts. The automatic use of visual memories when I am thinking about a story that I’m listening to shows that visual memory is not just a narrow function of the mind, and I think it also shows that there is little point in trying to make a distinction between memory and imagination, as both appear to be functions that are beyond conscious control, at least in some situations.

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Pareidolia at Sculptures by the Sea – our child clearly has an excellent left fusiform gyrus

Shipwreck by Steve Croquett at Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe 2012

Shipwreck by Steve Croquett at Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe 2012

I took our youngest with me when I visited this year’s Sculptures by the Sea at what is known to some locals as Cottesloe Main Beach. We had a wonderful time, and her favourite scuplture was the lounge room made of sandbags on the sea shore (Comfort Zone by Alessandra Rossi), but I think our child really got more fun out of playing with other kids with the sculpture Xing by Graeme Pattison. I would love to see some local government pruchase this sculpture for installation at a playground. As soon as she saw the Shipwreck sculpture by Steve Croquett our child identified it as two faces, not a shipwreck. This instant interpretation no surprise to me. Even as a baby our child has had an uncanny ability to detect visual patterns which are not apparent to others. I once noticed our child as a baby laughing at the calendar that was hanging in our kitchen. It was a freebie produced by our local council and it had a rather cheap attempt at art in it, in which a photo of faces was superimposed with some other image in a way that made the cheery faces rather hard to pick, but our little girl had noticed them. Our child was also quite gifted at spotting spiders all around the house which no one else noticed, even very small ones, very thin Daddy-long-legs spiders, and spiders way up on the ceiling. Our young one also loves to point out animal shapes in clouds, or in shapes found in natural objects, and I can always see the same thing when my attention is drawn to the shapes by our child. I suspect that our child’s interest and perhaps talent in identifying visual patterns might be genetically related to my unusual ability in face recognition. She has at times expressed observations that appear to be evidence of synaesthesia, which I experience and which runs in our family, but it is hard to know what to make of this as our child is young and some synesthesia researchers believe that all young children experience synaesthesia.

It appears that the term that is used for the ability to spot face-like visual patterns is pareidolia, but the definition of this term found in the Wikipedia isn’t really the same as what our child does. The Wikipedia defines pareidolia as a psychological phenomenon in which random or vague stimulus is perceived as significant. Our child doesn’t percieve the shapes as significant – our child percieves the shapes in non-face objects as resembling faces, but clearly understands that they are just resemblances, and there is no indication that our child thinks there is anything particularly significant about what is seen. The term pareidolia is also too general to define what our child does – our child notices patterns in visual stimuli to an unusual degree, but does not notice patterns in auditory stimuli to any unusual degree, as far as I can tell, but the term pareidolia appears to be not sepcific to any sensory mode. I would like to see a more specific term for identifying patterns in random or vague visual stimuli and an even more specific term for identifying faces in random or vague visual stimuli. I’m surprised that scientists haven’t already created terms for these things.

In January of this year an interesting  fMRI study exploring the relationship between pareidolia and face perception was published in the science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. One of the authors of the study is from Dartmouth College and another is from MIT, two US universities where world-leading studies on face recognition are done. Two interesting articles about the study were also published in January, one at Wired magazine and the other at MIT News. To summarize the findings, the pattern of activations found in the left and the right fusiform gryri were interpreted as evidence that the left fusiform gyrus does the job of noticing face-like patterns in images, while the right fusiform gyrus also performed face processing, but did not duplicate the task done by the left, but instead performed the job of deciding whether or not a face-like image is in fact a real face. It is thought that these brain areas work together to interpret images. So it appears that the department of pareidolia in the brain is the left fusiform gyrus, while judgements about what is a real face are performed in a separate but similar and linked part of the brain. I think this arrangement will make sense to anyone who understands the processes that give rise to creativity and reflective thought. Different modes of thinking by different parts of the brain, in a series of stages, make up the process of intellectual creation. Turn-taking and specialization are features of this type of process, and it is no surprise to me that a most important part of the brain, the fusiform gyrus, also works in this way.

Sculptures by the Sea  http://www.sculpturebythesea.com/Home.aspx

Wikipedia. Pareidolia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia

Brown, Mark How does your brain know when a face is really a face? Wired.co.uk January 10th 2012.  http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-01/10/face-perception

Trafton, Anne How does our brain know what is a face and what’s not? MIT News. January 9th 2012.  http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/face-perception-0109.html

Ming Meng, Tharian Cherian, Gaurav Singal, Pawan Sinha Lateralization of face processing in the human brain. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published online before print January 4, 2012. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1784.   http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/01/03/rspb.2011.1784.abstract

Are any researchers looking for super-recognizer subjects for a study?

I have recently received a comment from a reader who believes he is a super-recognizer and who also wishes to take part in research as a subject. Can anyone help with information?

It looks like we’re all synaesthetes when it comes to food

This interesting recent article at Smithsonian.com discusses some studies in the area of cross-modal associations between the senses of sound and taste.

Smith, Peter What does sweetness sound like? Smithsonian.com April 5th 2012. http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2012/04/what-does-sweetness-sound-like/

Unsolved Mysteries is my guilty TV watching pleasure, but I read New Scientist with pride

Journalism in the areas of crime, the supernatural and miscellaneous weird stuff are not my usual choices in reading or viewing, at least not in the daytime, but there’s nothing more fascinating than a mystery, except for a clever solution to a mystery. One interesting aspect of this compelling TV show from the United States, which is generally broadcast late at night around the weekend, is that every episode of Unsolved Mysteries involves facial recognition as the solution or an important element of the story’s mystery. Other types of visual recognition can be an important feature in the narratives. One episode of the show recently broadcast in Australia was a murder mystery in which a police officer who had just investigated a murder later attended the home of the victim’s girlfriend who had disappeared. Just by chance the police officer looked into a linen closet and noticed in there pillow-slips with a fabric design which matched the sheet that had been found wrapped around the boyfriend’s body. I’ll bet that’s a variety of visual recognition that the scientists haven’t named yet.

While catching up with reading some back issues of New Scientist magazine today I came across another story about a criminal conviction that resulted from some very sharp soft-furnishing fabric design recognition skills on the part of an American law-enforcement officer. It’s not a nice story, not nice at all, but at least there’s some inspiration to be found in the good people using technology to fight the vile crime of child sexual abuse. An investigator at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noticed that among the countless horrible images received at the NCMEC two were of girls of a similar age on what looked like the same bedspread of a distinctive appearance. I have no idea how the police trace these things, but the locations where that style of bedspread were sold were identified, and this was the clue that led to the identification of the children and the criminal. Google have developed for the NCMEC software designed to achieve similar feats of visual object recognition as the investigator’s human visual recognition of the bedspread. It is hoped that the automation of the identification of items of interior decoration in images of child abuse will help to solve more crimes. Of course, the NCMEC also works to identify the child victims of crime themselves, in the Child Victim Identification Program. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are partners in the NCMEC’s Technology Coalition, and the application of technology to the task of identification is viewed as the only way to deal with the increasing volume of pornographic material submitted to the NCMEC every year.

Unsolved Mysteries   http://www.unsolved.com/

Peter Aldhous Fighting online child porn. New Scientist. April 9th 2011. p.23-24. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21028075.000-automating-the-hunt-for-child-pornographers.html

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (US)  http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PublicHomeServlet?

Would super-recognition be relevant to performance as a radiologist?

Costandi, Mo (2011) Doctors diagnose diseases as if recognising objects. Neurophilosophy. guardian.co.uk December 20th 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/neurophilosophy/2011/dec/20/1

Melo M , Scarpin DJ , Amaro E Jr, Passos RBD , Sato JR , et al. (2011) How Doctors Generate Diagnostic Hypotheses: A Study of Radiological Diagnosis with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28752. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028752 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0028752

 

Was that a comment from super-recognizer Jennifer?

I refer to the recent comment on the post “Woo Hoo! A test specifically for super-recognizers from CBS 60 Minutes”