Faces, faces everywhere

I’ve been following with great interest the Mindscapes series of articles in New Scientist magazine by Helen Thompson. This week is no less fascinating, maybe even more. It’s about a man whose personality changed following two strokes, paradoxically transforming from criminality to sensitivity, with the strokes also triggering an unstoppable surge of artistic creativity. The artist’s name was Tommy McHugh. He passed away last year. Such artists by virtue of brain transformation are sometimes labelled as acquired savants, and the interesting thing is that they often seem to experience synaesthesia, which raises the question of whether they were always synaesthetes or perhaps synaesthesia is latent in all people, and can be uncovered by changes in brain functioning. What especially interests me about McHugh’s art is the extraordinary focus on faces in his paintings and also sculptures, many of them having such subtle depictions of multiple faces that they could be described as a celebration of pareidolia. Colour is also clearly an aspect of visual experience that McHugh enjoyed experimenting with. I was also struck by McHugh’s description of what it was like to have the first stroke; when he woke up in hospital he saw a tree sprouting numbers. That sounds like just the type of non-psychotic hallucination that Oliver Sacks described in his recent book Hallucinations. It is my understanding that faces, colour and graphemes including numbers are all processed in the fusiform gyrus. The fusiform gyrus is also believed to be involved in at least some types of synaesthesia. I know about this stuff because I have experienced synaesthesia involving faces, graphemes, colours and just about everything that goes on in the fusiform gyrus, and I’m apparently naturally gifted in face memory ability. It looks as though McHugh could also have experienced synaesthesia, judging by the title of one painting “Feeling the Feelings Tasting Emotions”. Yes, I’ve experienced that too. A few years ago I speculated that the famous synaesthete Bauhaus artist Kandinsky showed a focus on the things processed in the fusiform gyrus in one of his paintings (Upward), including a face that could be missed by viewers not gifted with a goodly dose of pareidolia.  This might be what happens when your fusiform gyrus gets off it’s leash, and McHugh insisted that it was the best thing that ever happened to him.





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  • Helen  On May 14, 2013 at 1:10 am


    Just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to comment on and follow my Mindscapes series. Your points on the various articles have been really interesting and informative. You wondered in one post whether I will be writing a column on super-recognisers – yes I definitely intend to, but Im actually having a few problems contacting anyone with the disorder. I was wondering whether you have been diagnosed as a super-recogniser yourself or know of anyone else who has? (Apologies if this info is in your older blog posts!) I’d be really interested to chat further (helen.thomson@newscientist.com).

    Thanks again for following the column, really appreciate it.

    Best wishes,
    Helen Thomson

  • C. Wright  On May 14, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Thanks for your comment Helen. I’ve got to set you straight on one point. I don’t think any of the researchers who have studied super-recognizers or super-recognizers ourselves regard it as a disorder, and thus it is not a thing that one gets diagnosed with, it is more a level of ability that one gets tested for. In many ways super-recognition is like synaesthesia: it appears to have a biological basis and it is uncommon but it isn’t a disorder, it can be identified through testing, it probably involves the fusiform gyrus, it cannot be learned or taught, many people don’t realize how common it is and it has mistakenly been assumed to be rare, you can have it an not realize that you are any different to others, it involves visual perception but not the eyes, it is interesting to researchers, it’s definition is up for discussion and it involves automatic and unconscious processes.

    Have I been diagnosed as a super-recogniser? In 2010 I did two tests of face recognition which were available over the internet and I got perfect scores and I took screenshots of my score pages. These were the Famous Faces test and the short version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). These are tests created by and used by prosopagnosia researchers. They are not just pop psychology fun from a magazine. I approached a number of face processing and prosopagnosia researchers in the hope of doing another more difficult face memory test. I ended up volunteering in person as a study subject at an Australian university. They gave me 2 tests, none the one I sought. They never gave me the results of one of the tests. The other I did get a score, but in hindsight I should have positively confirmed with them that this test was the long version of the CFMT. My score on that test was consistent with being a super-recognizer, but as I recall it the researchers didn’t make any comments about my level of ability. I’m comparing my own test scores against the ones of identified super-recognizers in Russel, Duchaine and Nakayama’s 2009 paper that coined the term “super-recognizer”. My story can be read here:
    My synaesthesia has been confirmed by my scores in the Synesthesia Battery and I can share evidence of this:

    If you are wishing to interview a super-recognizer who has been positively identified as one by researchers Jennifer Jarrett is one obvious name, but she’s American and I assume you are in the UK. She has been on the American 60 Minutes, and it appears that she has left some comments at this blog. I think she’s pretty clear that she is not a synaesthete like me, so you can’t assume the two things go together. British researcher Dr Ashok Jansari has identified a group of super-recognizers, so he might be able to help you, and there’s all those police super-recognizers in London who have been studied by Dr Josh Davis I think. If you don’t limit yourself to super-recognizers who have been identified by researchers than you should be able to find one easily, as we are I think 1 in 50 people. Plenty of ppl claiming to be supers make comments on websites and articles on the internet, and there’s no reason to doubt them. Here’s just one example:

    You might wish to use this post of mine as an aid to your research on super-recognition:


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