Monthly Archives: May 2012

Pieces of Perth’s past lodged in my brain

I’ve noticed a few interesting things about the way that visual memory of scenes or landscapes is naturally and involuntarily connected with other types of thinking in some interesting ways in my mind, which seem to be like or related to synaesthesia. Perhaps the oddest and least “normal” of these is a type of synaesthesia that I experience in which hand movements while doing various specific chores trigger permanently but idiosyncratically linked visual memories of scenes. An example would be involuntarily seeing in my mind’s eye for a second or two a scene of the front of the family doctor’s suburban surgery which my family visited in the 1970s, with its glossy pea-green painted decorative woodwork and moist garden, when I would carefully slide in a decorative comb to keep my hair in place. I’ve also noticed that some people, including some of my other synaesthete relatives and myself, experience a visual/memory phenomenon that appears to be a naturally and spontaneously occurring version of the memory technique that is known as the method of loci. We have noticed that when we revisit and view a specific outdoor place where we learned new information in the past, we might find that the exact thought that we had been learning at that exact spot in the past is re-activated our minds automatically. The information previously learned is generally of a conceptual nature, the result of listening to talk radio or reading a book, but sometimes memories of specific pop songs heard in the past are evoked. An example would be remembering the concept of people being killed in the Black Saturday bushfires evoked by watching the scenery while being driven past the exact spot on Flinders Street in Yokine where one sat in a stationary vehicle stopped at traffic lights as one listened in 2009 to morning news on the car radio giving the first full confirmation of the seriousness of the disaster.

Another synaesthesia-like linking of visual memories with another type of thought would be the involuntary illustration of thinking about some specific concepts with scenes of visual memories that are sometimes semantically related, sometimes temporally or randomly linked, and often very dated. I might see a scene of trees on the Rockingham foreshore from decades ago when thinking about the concept of the most popular hits of the latter part of the career of the Beatles. Maybe the “rock” in Rockingham or the British migrants living there are the reason for the linking of these things. As an illustration for thinking of the concept of a nightclub I might see in my mind’s eye the dark and sparse interior of a bar (or was it a nightclub?) which I think was on the ground floor level among St George’s Terrace skyscrapers in the 1970s. Was it called “The Foxy Lady”? No joke, I think it was. It was the 1970s. It was the era of no taste and even less subtlety. Yes, I think there indeed was once a bar on the terrace called The Foxy Lady. How do I know what the inside of it looked like?

Just noticed article about prosopagnosia and face space in special edition of Discover magazine

At the newsagent the other day I noticed a special edition of Discover magazine “The Brain” with the date of Spring 2012. Inside it was an article about face recognition research done by Professor Marlene Behrmann of Carnegie Mellon University. I am pretty sure that it is the same interesting article that was first published in the January-February 2011 special issue of Discover. The article author Carl Zimmer explained the concept of the face space model of face memory and described a research study which found an interesting difference between an acquired prosopagnosic and some developmental cases and normal control subjects. The article can be read at the website of Discover magazine and can also be found in full-text through at least one of the press and magazine article online services that are offered through public libraries.

Carl Zimmer The brain: seeing the person behind the face. Discover. Jan-Feb 2011 special issue published online January 19, 2011.

here’s another interesting article at Discover about face recognition

John Horgan Can a single cell recognize your face? Discover. June 2005 edition published online June  5, 2005.

and here’s a YouTube video in which Dr Marlene Behrmann talks in a  interview about prosopagnosia and gives an authoritative explanationa of what it is. She seems to have a slight South African accent.

Peng, Cynthia Marlene Behrmann – prosopagnosia. goCognitive. uploaded Sep 25, 2011.

Is seeing believing? A documentary worth catching on SBS2 tonight

If you have an interest in the psychology of sensory perception and you live in Western Australia it still isn’t too late to watch the repeat of the British documentary Is Seeing Believing? which is scheduled for broadcast for 7.30pm on SBS2.


Other cases of synaesthesia involving face perception – I’m certainly not the only one

“In short, for our person–colour synaesthetes the inducer can be sensorial, semantic or a motor one: An emotion, an action, an attitude, facial recognition or sense of familiarity. Then we can speak of synaesthesia, ideaesthesia (Nikolic, 2009) and kinetoesthesia.”

That is a quote from a very interesting paper by Spanish psychology researchers that was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition in March of this year. So we have a case of synaesthesia involving facial recognition described in a science journal. So I’m not the only one in the world. I never thought I was the only one, in fact I think I might have predicted that other cases must exist, somewhere in this blog, based on the observation that functions of the fusiform gyrus are so often involved in the various types of synesthesia (colour perception, letter recognition, word recognition) and face recognition is another function of the fusiform gyrus. I have given a special name to my own experience of facial recognition synaesthesia – “The Strange Phenomenon”, and I described it in great detail in the very first post in this blog. This blog was created as a record of my search to find a scientific explanation for The Strange Phenomenon. The authors of the March 2012 paper also found action-related synaesthesia, which is another unusual type of synaesthesia that I experience which I have also described in detail in this blog. I often experience images in my mind’s eye of sometimes very old memories of landscape scenes from my past triggered by doing fine-motor household chores with my hands.

The question needs to be asked – why have Spanish researchers been able to discover and describe such interesting and complex cases of synaesthesia, while there don’t seem to be comparable case studies from the UK or the US? I’ve never seen people -> animal synaesthesia described or even mentioned as a possibility before reading the fascinating paper that was published in March in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. Perhaps the apparently negative attitude of V. S. Ramachandran towards synaesthete subjects of study gives a clue as to why more interesting synaesthesia case studies seem to be missing from research from English-speaking countries. The famous Rama’s habit of describing synesthesia as a scrambling of the brain grates the first time one reads it and gets very, very old once I’ve seen it in print a few times. On the other hand, perhaps there is nothing wrong with Anglophone synaesthesia researchers, and it is simply the case that the Spanish have more interesting minds, including Spanish synaesthetes. Having viewed paintings by Dali and photos of buildings by Gaudi and witnessed a strikingly original and often quite dangerous performance by La Fura Dels Baus at the Perth International Arts Festival a couple of years ago, I could believe that.

E.G. Milán, O. Iborra, M. Hochel, M.A. Rodríguez Artacho, L.C. Delgado-Pastor, E. Salazar, A. González-Hernández Auras in mysticism and synaesthesia: A comparison. Consciousness and Cognition.  Volume 21 Issue 1, March 2012, Pages 258–268.  (This paper is clearly a translation and difficult reading in parts)

Synesthesia May Explain Healers Claims of Seeing People’s ‘Aura’. ScienceDaily. May 4th 2012

Ramachandran VS, Miller L, Livingstone MS, Brang D. Colored halos around faces and emotion-evoked colors: A new form of synesthesia. Neurocase. Available online: 25 Nov 2011.  DOI:10.1080/13554794.2011.608366.

Ramachandran VS The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011 (Robert with coloured face aura synaesthesia indicating emotions percieved in others and also diagnosed with Asperger syndrome described on pages 101-102.)

Thomson, Helen Is this proof that spooky auras are real? Short Sharp Science (blog at New Scientist) 14 November 2010.

Story about facial recognition on ABC’s Catalyst tonight left me wondering where the rest of the story was

It seems very odd to me that this television story from Australia’s ABC about face recognition technology and its possible applications to forensic/law enforcement work opened with some compelling images of the 2011 England Riots, but failed to mention the apparently successful application of human face recognition specialists (super-recognizers) by the Metropolitan Police in London to interpreting CCTV images of those riots. Superrecognisers weren’t mentioned at all in the Catalyst report, an important omission, and the value of human face recognition was dismissed lightly by Professor Brian Lovell from the University of Queensland. Prof. Lovell’s areas of expertise are electrical engineering and computer science, so one might not expect him to know a lot about human face recognition. The world’s leaders in research in human face memory and face recognition are generally psychologists. The reporter Anja Taylor chose to focus solely on Australian interviewees and argued that “new facial recognition technology promises crime fighters their greatest gift.” There seem to be a number of contradictions between reporting by Catalyst and media in the UK about the forensic use of CCTV images of the English riots. Catalyst’s technophilic and Austro-centric perspective is a questionable treatment of the subject but I’m not surprised, as I’ve been viewing Catalyst for long enough to realise that it is primarily a bit of light entertainment from the ABC that gives Australian researchers opportunities promote their latest work. I found it quite amusing that the journalist presented face recognition tasks which average humans do rountinely and with ease, tasks such as identifying faces in poor images and identifying a moving face while tracking it, as miracles of technology when a computer system performs these tasks.

It appears that Australia doesn’t have science journalists working in the electronic media, we just have a small group of slick and entertaining radio and TV presenters who have lots of contacts in science and academia. Don’t we deserve better?

May 5th 2012 – Maybe I shouldn’t be quite as harsh about the standard of journalism at Catalyst. I’ve been watching a repeat of last week’s episode of Catalyst, and the report by Anja Taylor about the phenomenon of mass tree deaths and diseases in response to rising temperatures and drought seemed to be excellent work on a very important issue. I can’t claim much knowledge of the subject, but I thought it was good. Taylor interviewed not just one or two, but many different scientists working in various areas of ecological science, and I think it might just be the case that more effort in this report resulted in a better piece of journalism. I just wish Catalyst would stop producing journalism that isn’t done with as much care and effort.

Facial Recognition. Catalyst. Reporter: Anja Taylor. 3 May 2012.

Story on 7.30 tonight questions use of forensic facial recognition evidence in Australian courts

In tonight’s interesting and important story about the poor evidence-base of a lot of the forensic science and expert witnesses in Australian courts of law, Associate Professor Richard Kemp is interviewed, and he questions the scientific standards of people claiming the status of experts in the areas of forensic facial recognition and body mapping, as is applied to interpreting images photographed from CCTV and mobile phones.

I found this report particularly of interest, as I’ve been wondering if the abilities of super-recognizers might one day be given sufficient testing and scientific recognition that they (we?) might be able to work as expert witnesses in the courts. I realise that such experts would be different to the established concept of the legal expert witness in that it would not be a body of knowledge that the superrecogniser would offer, but a scientifically validated ability or talent. As long as the upper spectrum of human face recognition ability is superior to the performance of facial recognition technology, which it apparently currently is, the human face recognition specialist should still have more credibility before the law than the latest whiz-bang computer software.

CSI Effect questions forensic evidence. 7.30. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Broadcast: 03/05/2012. Reporter: Deborah Cornwall