Not just faces

There I was last night watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show with one of our kids who was viewing it for the first time (and was predictably an instant fan), and I was impressed by what I thought were similarities between the “Expert” character played by the late English actor Charles Gray and the European-raised Gilbert Proesch, who is one half of the two-man art phenomenon Gilbert and George. I felt there was such a similarity that I wondered if the artist had done an acting role, and they were the same person, but at the same time I knew that one has a very asymmetric face and the other didn’t. I still felt that there is some similarity, but wasn’t sure exactly what or how. Now that I’ve been able to Google up some images of the faces of both men, it is clear that their faces in still photography look quite different, and it is also obvious that although the artist has lived in England for a long time, he retains an exotic European accent that is quite different to the English actor’s. So why do I still feel that there is some similarity? Clearly it isn’t face or accent matching. Perhaps their voices are similar in pitch or something, but I think what I’ve been doing is recognition of personas or personalities or characters. The characters portrayed by Gray and Proesch (Gilbert and George are an act, though probably close to reality) are similar in many ways. They are English gents wearing suits with gray hair of a similar style, of a similar age (in the films I’ve viewed of each), with personalities that are male, quite handsome, well-spoken, urbane, controlled and focused, culturally English, intellectual, interesting and authoritative in some way, but at the same time both operating within the shock-comedy-art genre (Gilbert and George’s interviews are often very funny and their art could be interpreted as shock-comedy-art). I think it is possible that their body language and/or voices might be quite similar, which might not be captured in still images.

What does this mean? Why does this matter? I think it shows that there’s much more to being a super-recognizer (as I apparently am according to numerous test results) than merely memorizing the shapes and contours of mental images of faces. I think the thing that gives me “the edge” in face recognition is a great memory for personality or character, which means being able to automatically encode in my brain the whole package of what makes a person; face, hair, body, culture, gender, personality, level of intellect, vocabulary, race, etc. I’m certain that this ability in memorization of the whole person is related the the fact that I’m a synaesthete with a hyper-connected brain, which may well mean that I’m better than others at memorizing a concept of one particular person consisting of a large number of traits of that person, including visual, conceptual and auditory information (face, personality, voice etc) and each of those traits things that they might have in common with any number of other people I’ve seen and memorized. As you should be able to see (in your mind’s eye), this type of memorization is like a huge and complex network of associations. I suspect that a hyper-connected brain might be good at handling this type of categorical thinking about disparate characteristics. I also think this type of personality recognition is related to the fact that I’m not only a synesthete but a personifying synaesthete. Ever since childhood I’ve automatically thought of numbers and letters as having human attributes such as ages and genders and personalities. This is called ordinal-linguistic personification, and it is a type of synaesthesia. I guess my brain has always been very keen to memorize personalities, even in things that aren’t actually people. If you want to fully understand superiority in face recognition, you will need to look at synaesthesia and personification. That is my tip to researchers and that is also MY idea.


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  • DoIKnowYou  On April 30, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    I have been looking online for a while for something or someone that has some sort of knowledge or experience which correlates with mine. It may not be you but I wonder if you have any idea. I recognise strangers as people I know, even when I know they’re not or can’t be. I also recognise abstract stimuli as things, i.e. a trashcan in peripheral vision as a person, or a flicker of light as an approaching car. It has been labeled as prosopagnosia and is being looked into but I wonder whether this could be a side effect of my SSRIs, I was wondering if this was similar to anything you have experienced or know about?

  • C. Wright  On May 1, 2014 at 1:06 am

    I believe the term for feeling that actual strangers are people you know, a false face recognition, is “hyperfamiliarity”. I don’t experience this. I don’t greet strangers, as is described in some case studies, in fact a lot of the time when I recognize a familiar face in a crowd I’ll feign an lack of recognition and look away.

    I’m not sure what to make of the other experiences that you have described. They could be normal or abnormal I guess, depending on how long it takes you to recognize these visual stimuli for what they really are. Any brain will have to work to interpret genuinely ambiguous visual stimuli, and this is the basis of many types of visual illusions.

    I am not a doctor and I don’t know anything about SSRI side effects and I have little knowledge of prescription or illicit drugs, because I avoid them all as much as possible. You need to take your questions to a good and trusted doctor, not just any old doctor, and perhaps you will need a referral to see a neurologist. If the visual experiences that you have described are things that have started happening recently, and are NOT things that you have always experienced, then I advise you to SEE A DOCTOR RIGHT AWAY.

    Good luck and best wishes!

  • C. Wright  On May 1, 2014 at 1:16 am

    I’m now wondering whether my test results on things like the CFMT (100% correct on short 72 question version) rule out false positive face identification. i suspect that they might, but I am currently too busy to look into the question properly.

  • DoIKnowYou  On May 1, 2014 at 4:30 am

    Thanks for the reply, Its interesting to find a word of similar conditions out there, I am awaiting scans and such at the moment, and can keep you in the loop should you wish. I have greater, waved, smiled and even hugged a stranger (the awkwardness!!)

  • C. Wright  On May 1, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    For sure I’m interested if you would like to share your story in comments at my blog, but I’ll also understand if you have more pressing things to attend to.

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