Tag Archives: Adaptation (Evolutionary)

Memory is fallible, but then again, there’s super-recognizers

It appears that super-recognizers (people with very good face recognition ability) are mentioned in the new book The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw, but I cannot find a preview of that bit of text. I’d be interested in reading what Shaw wrote about supers, because I believe that we are very good evidence against the argument that this book, and some other pop psychology books have offered, that human memory is unreliable and open to interference. I’ve noticed that writing by researchers and authors who offer arguments against the reliability of human memory and also those who offer arguments against the idea of natural or inborn talent tend to ignore or gloss over the many things that science already knows about face recognition, face memory and super-recognizers.

I’m happy to admit that people who perform amazing feats of semantic memory such as remembering huge lists of random facts or meaningless digits using new or ancient memory techniques have trained their own memories with many hours of practice, but super-recognizers are very different to those people. We do not knowingly or deliberately train ourselves and we do not consciously use tricks or techniques. Maybe we self-train and invent strategies in an implicit manner, but it is also true that super-recognition does seem to run in families, so there seems to be an important genetic contribution to the elite ability or talent, just as there is clearly a genetic component to developmental prospagnosia (very poor face recognition ability).

Face memory researchers have been investigating the phenomenon of super-recognition since it was first described in 2009, and there seems to be ample evidence that supers have very long-lasting, adaptable, and reliable memory of the faces of other humans. We can remember faces across many decades and across changes in facial appearance by forces such as ageing. I believe I am very good at spotting facial family resemblance and facial phenotypes across gender and age. Super-recognizers can also display very accurate face recognition after being briefly shown images of only faces (no hair etc) of a large group of faces of same gender and similar age, some of them very degraded images. This accuracy requires being able to avoid false positives and false negatives. There’s no denying that supers are bloody good at faces. There’s also no denying that some other people are very poor at face memory, so authors of these pop psychology books that denigrate human memory are able to state with a vague air of truth that human memory for faces is fallible. But such a statement ignores what we know about supers, and this is why I have issues with the common practice of psychology researchers of roputinely discarding data from outliers in their studies. If any of that discarded data is from outlier study participants that did incredible well in tests of face recognition or memory, then those participants could be supers and their data tells an important story about human memory and human face recognition.

I think supers are interesting examples of a type of human memory that stands out from other types of human memory as reliable, long-lasting, easily or unconsciously enmcoded and accurate, so one should wonder, why is the face memory of supers so great? My bet is that this niche example of human memory has two characteristics that give it special power: it is disributed across a broad network of neurons throughout the brain (and this is why it might be found along-side synaesthesia), and it is also a type of visual memory, which I can only assume is a very ancient and well-evolved type of human memory that predates stuff like writing and language, that happens in areas of the brain that work amazingly and unconsciously because they evloved well before there ever were humans. I cannot imagine how genuine face memory could ever be interfered with by suggestion or manipulation, because the tricks that some memory researchers have used to fool around with the memories of study participants work on a conscious level communicated by verbal means. Genuine face memory is implicit and visual. It is safe from such nonsense.

The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw:



Colour-blindness a variation in visual perception ability possibly endowing advantages relevant to work performance, rather than simply a disability

Payne, Rob Colour-blindness may aid in search and rescue effort. Science Network. November 11th 2015.

The idea that colour-blindness can be advantagous is not new to me, as last year I watched with great interest a story on ABC24’s News Breakfast in which the colour-blind presenter Michael Rowland explained his advantage over people with normal colour vision in visually detecting camouflaged items. Unfortunately the clip of this story is no longer available to view.

Vision scientist explains colour blindness. ABC News Breakfast. 7 Apr 2014.



Large twin study using the CFMT reportedly finds face recognition is heritable but largely independent of general intelligence and object recognition ability



I wish I had the full scientific background to fully interpret this interesting new study, because the results have HUGE implications in psychology, but as far as I know are not particularly surprising or at odds with related research. The genetic and phenotypic independence of face recognition ability would smash to smithereens the long-debated idea of “g”, or one (mysterious) factor largely determining general mental ability. Face recognition or face memory appears to defy “g”, but all the same, I can’t help clinging to the idea that there’s a link between top ability in face recognition and at least some other cognitive gifts. Based on personal experience I find it hard to leave behind the idea of a link between elite reading and writing ability, synaesthesia and superior face recognition.

Placing the heritability of face recognition ability at 61%, as this study has done, kicks sand in the face of the long and bitterly debated idea that giftedness or talent is the result of long hours of focused training rather than innate ability, but I can think of one researcher who has championed the “trained not innate” position on talent or expertise for many years, who seems to lack an awareness of the entire body of face recognition research, instead focusing his attentions on elite performers in sport, music, memory and chess. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

I am a super-recognizer, and I have no memory of ever training my ability in recognizing or memorizing faces, and no one has coached, pressured nor trained me to this specific task. I defy those who argue that intelligence is “environment” not genetics to explain me and faces. Up until a few years ago I had no idea I was even above average with faces, so don’t ask me.

They are developing tests for recruiting super-recognizers into the police in the UK, but don’t ask me what’s happening here

Phillips, Mark London police using crime-fighting “super recognizers” official. CBS News, Dailymotion. Publications date November 12th 2013. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x173o5e_london-police-using-crime-fighting-super-recognizers_news

This is an American report from CBS News published in November 2013 on the use of super-recognizers in London policing. Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville explains how inadequate computer facial recognition was found to be compared with results from police supers. PC Gary Collins and researcher Dr Josh Davis are also interviewed, and super-recognizer police doing identification work are shown. It is revealed that tests are being developed for recruiting super-recognizers into a police force in London. My guess is that this would mean recruiting supers into the police force because they are supers, in addition to their existing policy of finding and utilizing the many supers that they already have serving in this large police force.

Barone, Tayissa Council’s eyes guide long arm of the law. West Australian. September 7th-8th 3013, p.20-21 news.

“The Met” continue to be leaders in the use of human facial super-recognition in policing, but what is happening here in Western Australia with regard to human face recognition and CCTV and policing? As far as I can tell, not a lot. As far as I know there is no testing of any kind of face recognition or face memory ability in police recruitment, and I’ve not read anything about use of supers in any Australian police force. In September 2013 the Weekend West had an article in it about operators at the City of Perth’s surveillance centre working with and beside members of the WA Police to keep things under control in the city streets. The journalist wrote about the tens of millions of dollars that the City of Perth has spent on their CCTV camera network, the “unique” skill set of the surveillance centre operators, their intuitive understanding of body language, their eye for detail, multitasking ability, the keen competition for their jobs and some rigorous battery of testing in which only one out of 160 applicants met the required standard, but not a single mention of face recognition or visual memory.

Western Australia Police Service reduces crime through intelligence-led policing with ABM. ABM United Kingdom Limited. 2012. http://www.abmsoftware.com/en-GB/products/82-uk/news/case-studies/139-western-australia-police-service-reduces-crime-through-intelligence-led-policing-with-abm.html


A webpage of a software company ABM boasts that it provides the WA Police with facial recognition technology for use on photos and other static images of offenders, which will probably impress the “boys who love toys” technophile set, but it fails to impress me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there appears to be good evidence that the most able humans can vastly out-perform contemporary facial recognition technology, and secondly, the identification of people from still images of faces or entire bodies is inherently limited. It does not use the wealth of information that one can glean from looking at a moving image. Faces are unique and so are the ways that people move. A moving image is essentially richer and more complete and more natural than looking at a single still image. Study of interviews of super-recognizers yields many clues that supers recognize people, not images and not just faces. Supers can identify people from photos, but it seems likely that the memorization process works best if it is based on watching people, not looking at photos. I am not aware of any face recognition technology that works off moving images, but that might just be a mark of my ignorance. I remain skeptical.

The idea that technology must beat humans in face recognition is a popular one, I think based on some major misconceptions about human psychology and artificial intelligence. I think a lot of people assume that if tasks like visual identification or walking or recognizing voices are effortless for humans then they must be even more easy for a computer system to perform. This shows an ignorance of the millions of years of biological evolution that gave humans and even the most humble animals sensory perception, and the sensory and movement systems of muscles and nerves that give rise to the power of voluntary movement. These processes involve brains as much as they involve sensory organs and muscles. The fact that we are able to do these things without thinking much about them is no indication at all that they are simple. It is just an indication that some of the really clever tasks in cognition are too complex and important to be exposed to the interference of conscious thinking. Attempting to recapitulate the kind of design complexity that is found in biological sensory perception and biological movement with technology and computers would surely keep a designer occupied for a very long time. Good luck with that.

Obama’s face no less fascinating

President Obama has been sworn in for the second time, and he continues to make Washington DC a more attractive place than it would otherwise have been. He is surely too pretty for politics. I never fail to be amazed, whenever I see Obama’s winning smile, how much it looks like Nelson Mandela’s winning smile, so perhaps that proves there is some precedent of good looks in politics. I also can’t help but be drawn to noticing the colours in his facial features, I’m not sure exactly why. People of mixed race like Mr Obama often have aspects of their facial appearance that catch the eye because they violate unconscious expectations about the typical appearance of the races. European features with a dark skin or vice versa will baffle the mind for a moment. Maybe this is why I’m often left with the impression that Obama’s face lacks warm colours despite his share of African melanin. Such a warm smile on a face that has so much gray in it! My visual cortex never quite knows what to make of this famous face. I’m a little suspicious of Obama’s rich brown glow at today’s stirring inauguration speech. I hope I don’t give the impression of being a racist who can’t get over a dark-skinned president. I think it could be the darker colouration around Obama’s mouth and eyes which throws my face processing hardware into a minor spin, because when I look at Obama I can’t help thinking about those Indian people who naturally have “dark rings” around their eyes and dark lips (I once had a strikingly beautiful lady of this type as a co-worker), or the most fascinating Wodaabe people of various countries in Africa. They are a physically beautiful ethnic group with some unusual customs, such as the young men wearing make-up and fancy costumes while courting. Their dark make-up around their eyes and mouth emphasizes the whiteness of their eyes and teeth. I have also seen a photo in which lines down the middle of the faces in pale make-up possibly emphasize the symmetry of the men’s faces. Wodaabe men on display are quite a spectacle, and an unforgettable sight. An evolutionary psychologist might identify the display of facial symmetry and whiteness in eyes and teeth from contrasting natural darker skin colouration and also in cultural displays using dark eye and lip make-up as displays of genetic fitness and health which are adaptive. Americans have a more succinct way of describing this phenomenon: “eye candy”.

Wodaabe ethnic group http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wodaabe&oldid=513464314

Recent paper about early visual perception and hunger relevant to lexical-gustatory synaesthesia?

I’ve not been able to access the full text of this paper, and an abstract does not appear to be available from PubMed, but science journalist Mo Costandi has summarized this paper in a tweet thus: “Hungry people see food-related words more clearly than people who’ve just eaten”. Such a psychological process has some important features in common with my lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, which I have described in a post at this blog. The phenomenon apparently observed in this paper is a cognitive bias in a very early stage of sensory perception which is involved with an interest in food. This explanation seems just as applicable to my synaesthesia in which the sound of or the thought of a limited set of non-food words and names automatically evoke the thought of foods that have names that sound simiar to the non-food words or names that trigger the experience. Like other types of synaesthesia, a particular word or name evokes the concept a particular food. Lexical gustatory synesthesia is a scientifically recognized type of synaesthesia, but it is most commonly described in the form in which the sound of words evokes actual taste sensations. My synaesthesia perhaps at times crosses the border between concept and taste sensation, but not strongly. The big difference between the phenomenon apparently observed in this paper and my lexical-gustatory synaesthesia is that one is visual while the other is evoked by concepts or sounds. I thin this is a fine example of how synesthesia is not just a neuropsychological curiousity, but can help scientists to understand the basic workings of the mind.

Radel, Remi and Clément-Guillotin, Corentin Evidence of Motivational Influences in Early Visual Perception: Hunger Modulates Conscious Access. Psychological Science. January 26, 2012. 0956797611427920  Published online before print January 26, 2012, doi:10.1177/0956797611427920. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/01/26/0956797611427920.extract

A type of synaesthesia which I experience in which non-food words or names automatically evoke the concepts of particular foods: is lexical-gustatory synaesthesia an evolutionary adaptation?  https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/a-type-of-synaesthesia-which-i-experience-in-which-words-or-names-automatically-evoke-the-concepts-of-particular-foods/

I keep noticing more examples of my lexical-gustatory synaesthesia

….and when I do I add to this blog article. There are heaps of references to meat, and not a single reference to any vegetable. I don’t think I’d be much of a candidate for a vegetarian lifestyle.

A type of synaesthesia which I experience in which non-food words or names automatically evoke the concepts of particular foods: is lexical-gustatory synaesthesia an evolutionary adaptation? https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/a-type-of-synaesthesia-which-i-experience-in-which-words-or-names-automatically-evoke-the-concepts-of-particular-foods/


Face recognition evolved because it was (and still is) vitally important to social lives…..of some types of wasps

Why some wasps are good with faces – and others aren’t
by Wendy Zukerman
New Scientist 1 December 2011

Wasps have a good memory for a face
by Aria Pearson
New Scientist September 2008

and it appears that synaesthesia is not only limited to some humans, or to a limited degree all humans, as researchers have found evidence of synesthesia in chimpanzees:

Chimp brains may be hard-wired to evolve language

by Catherine de Lange

New Scientist 5 December 2011


Why might super-recognizer abilities have evolved?

There are a number of general areas and applications of face perception that I believe must be enhanced or superior in people who have excellent face recognition ability (super-recognizers?):

1. Identifying the same individual human on different occasions – face recognition

2. Identifying one’s own blood relatives or non-relatives, including a male adult perceiving whether or not an infant is one’s own genetic offspring or not. Things like hair and eye colour don’t always “breed true” and aren’t very specific, while facial features are much more distinctive and numerous.

3. Identifying blood ties among others

4. Identifying individuals who have unusual genetics or genetic anomalies, including genetic syndromes that might impact on the appearance of the face and/or the body, and also health, behaviour, intellect and/or personality

What possible significance do each of these applications of face perception have in terms of natural selection?

1. Keeping track of who does what (to who)…. Judging the character of individuals by the observed actions of individuals over a number of different interactions or observations.

2. Being able to judge the degree of relatedness of others in relation to one’s self must surely be a very useful ability in evolutionary biology. One of the biggest losers in the game of “selfish genes” is the cuckold who mistakenly raises another guy’s kids as though they are his own. He not only misses out on passing on his genes to the next generation, but he also gives two cheaters a free ride, genetically speaking, and thus also possibly misses out on the chance of devoting his resources to his own blood relatives who might not be his own offspring (kin selection). From the Wikipedia, on kin recognition: “…. if individuals have the capacity to recognize kin (kin recognition) and to adjust their behaviour on the basis of kinship (kin discrimination), then the average relatedness of the recipients of altruism could be high enough for this to be favoured.” According to the Wikipedia birds even have powers of egg recognition that can be used in response to the cuckoo-type scenario of brood parasitism: “Recognition of parasitic eggs is based on identifying pattern differences or changes in the number of eggs.”

3. Identifying blood ties among others will give a few clues about the probable loyalties and alliances of others, and it may also help to predict the behaviour of others based on observed behavioural familial traits.

4.  Identifying individuals who have genetic anomalies or unusual genetics could possibly be useful for many reasons. Such individuals might be particularly hard to predict about in terms of health, longevity, behaviour or abilities (impaired or enhanced abilities). One may wish to avoid mating with such risky stock, or to the contrary. One may wish to avoid forming trusting relationships (peer or unequal) with such individuals. Such individuals might be useful allies because they diversify the skill base of the team. Such individuals might be highly exploitable. Such individuals might bring interesting new genes to the gene pool of the family/tribe.

Synaesthesia linking concepts with scenes – maybe not so hard to explain, and maybe not really so strange?

I have recently been reading the chapter about synaesthesia in V. S. Ramachandran’s latest book about neuroscience, and among many other interesting things Ramachandran explained that some simple concepts are processed in the temporal lobes. This is the general part of the brain that I believe is hyper-developed or hyper-connected in my case, and it is the part of the brain in which the fusiform gyrus is located, where the recognition of faces, bodies, scenes, numbers and words is done, and colour is processed. I know as the result of testing that I have an above-average ability in face recognition, possibly in the super-recognizer class, and I also experience types of synaesthesia that involve faces, scenes, colours, words, letters and numbers, so I think I’m on solid ground when I assert that there is something interesting about my fusiform gyrus. Like many synaesthetes I also experience synaesthesia triggered by listening to music, and I believe that appreciating music has an unusual prominence in the lives of me and some of my synaesthete relatives. This type of thing is thought to be associated with the temporal lobes which do auditory processing among many other things, so I believe that whatever is different about my fusiform gyrus or (gyri?) is not limited to it but extends into the temporal lobes. So I was particularly interested that the processing of simple concepts goes on in the temporal lobe, because another type of synaesthesia that I experience links concepts with visual scenes which are processed in the fusiform gyrus in the temporal lobes. If these concepts are also processed in the temporal lobes, that would be another type of synaesthesia of mine that is a purely intra-temporal lobe phenomenon, and therefore a scientific explanation of many of the synaesthesia experiences of mine could be explained in one very short phrase; bushy temporal lobes. But I’m not completely sure that the types of concepts that my mind links with scenes are the same type of thing that goes on in the temporal lobes. This is the passage from page 104 of the book The Tell-Tale Brain by V. S. Ramachandran:

“Brain damage can make a person lose the ability to name tools but not fruits and vegetables, or only fruits and not tools, or only fruits but not vegetables. All of these concepts are stored close to one other in the upper parts of the temporal lobes, but clearly they are sufficiently separated so that a small stroke can knock out one but leave the others intact. You might be tempted to think of fruits and tools as perceptions rather than concepts, but in fact two tools – say, a hammer and saw – can be visually as dissimilar from each other as they are from a banana; what unites then is a semantic understanding about their purpose and use.”

This is a list of some of the concepts that are involved with the concept->scene synaesthesia of mine:
the concept of a bad “state housing” area that one could conceivably find one’s self living in if one’s life went to hell
the concept of Charles Darwin
the concept of Charles Darwin coming to terms with the death of a child
the concept of adoption
the concept of doing one’s own tax return
the concept of cooking with lard
the concept of Bettina Arndt
the concept of the toy the sketch-a-graph.

These concepts aren’t quite as simple as the conceptual categories of “fruits” or “tools”. Is this really the same type of conceptual thinking as that described by Ramachandran? I really don’t know. Maybe I would have more of a clue if I could find the time to read through an interesting-looking paper that I have found on the internet; The Representation of Object Concepts in the Brain by
Alex Martin. I’ve had a quick look at the paper, and I have spotted a couple of interesting things on page 32, a truly amazing misspelling of the word “synaesthete” and what appears to be confirmation that different types of grapheme -> colour synaesthesia involve different parts of the brain. I’m betting that my grapheme -> colour synaesthesia involves the ventral temporal cortex rather than sites in the occipital cortex, because for me the colours of the alphabet are experienced as knowledge of the colours of letters more than a perception of the colours of letters. This doesn’t make the experience any less real or specific. I can still “see” the colours very clearly in my mind’s eye.

I’ve had some thoughts about my concept -> scene and scene -> concept synaesthesia, and I think it could be the case that it only seems to be a strange and nonsensical way of thinking because it has been taken out of the context in which it evolved, and placed into this abstracted, complex, high-speed modern world that we live in. As I have previously observed, often there is a semantic relationship between the place seen in the scene and the concept, and sometimes the scene is of a place that I visited or frequented during the period of time when I was introduced to the concept or was thinking intensively about that concept. This would appear to be a completely useful and sensible way to think, with a thought triggering a real and visible scene illustrating and spatially locating the concept. Maybe a pre-historic human thinking with this type of synaesthesia might experience an appetite for a particular type of seafood, and then in her mind, helpfully, in response to the concept of that specific type of seafood, flashes the scene of the exact beach where she previously went hunting successfully for that particular seafood delicacy. I’ve had a little bit of experience hanging out with fishermen who knew what they were doing, and I know that catching a fish often requires knowing and doing exactly the correct thing – being in the right place at the right time with exactly the right bait and tackle for the specific thing that you are hunting. Casual attitudes and fuzzy thinking don’t get results. The exact nature of synaesthesia seems to fit in with this type of task. In the stable, predictable world of the hunter-gatherer in which there isn’t much abstract thinking to complicate life, this type of synaesthesia could possibly be a most useful tool of the mind, retrieving memories of exact locations just when they are required. One has to wonder if this type of thinking would have been so useful that everyone should have evolved to have it. Was synaesthesia the norm rather than the exception in early humans? Is my mind an atavism, or could it be a souvenir of a liaison between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthal race? Or is it true that this phenomenon isn’t synaesthesia at all, but a completely normal synaesthesia-like thing that is so ordinary that people don’t notice or discuss it?

Having a mind that automatically connects concepts with scenes might have been a very useful and sensible thing in the early times of our species, but when we link concepts with scenes in a mind that is living in the modern industrialized world, things can start to look a bit weird, because there has been an explosion of more abstract thought and complex learning, bringing with it a massive range of possible concepts to think about. In prehistoric times there were no tax returns or underclass suburbs or female sex therapists with gruff voices and high media profiles. It’s a strange old world that we live in, and as synaesthesia involves our thoughts and perceptions of this world, it should probably look just as strange.


A brief report on my synaesthesia experiences that involve concepts as triggers or evoked experiences https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/a-brief-report-on-my-synaesthesia-experiences-that-involve-concepts-as-triggers-or-evoked-experiences/

Martin, Alex The Representation of Object Concepts in the Brain. Annual Review of Psychology. 2007. 58:25–45.
First published online September 1, 2006.
The Annual Review of Psychology is online at http://psych.annualreviews.org
This article’s doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190143

Ramachandran, V. S. The tell-tale brain: unlocking the mystery of human nature. William Heinemann, 2011.