Tag Archives: Adaptation (Evolutionary)

Is there any particular reason why prosopagnosics are Australia’s favourite popularizers of science?

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is a prosopagnosic, and apparently so is Robyn Williams, who has been the hosting The Science Show on Australian public radio since the last ice age with intelligence and grace and a pleasantly smart but mild English accent. They both work for the ABC in both TV and radio. They have both written many popular science books. They both come across as likable and enthusiastic. Is this just coincidence? Looking overseas, other highly successful popularisers of science, such as Oliver Sacks and Jane Goodall have also been identified as prosopagnosics. In his role as host of QI, actor Stephen Fry has done a lot to educate and popularise science and other types of knowledge. He’s one too. Strange coincidence that this particular type of fame seems to go with a very particular inability to recognize or memorise faces more often that it should for a characteristic that affects around 1 in 50 people? Maybe it is just more likely that a person who is very interested in science is more likely to identify their self as a scientific curiosity? I could contrast this group of people with famous people who have identified as synaesthetes. Synaesthesia, like prosopagnosia is a psychological-neurological characteristic that is uncommon but not rare. and quite interesting but definitely not obvious. Unlike celebrity prosopagnosics, it seems as though famous figures who claim synaesthesia tend to be more into the arts than the sciences. So what gives?

I found out about Robyn Williams and prosopagnosia reading part of the transcript of an upcoming episode of the radio show Ockham’s Razor which is hosted by Williams. The guest of the show is scientist Len Fisher, and guess what? Another prosopagnosic. He’s made the claim that apophenia is the opposite of prosopagnosia. I can see the logic behind this claim but “No”. Super-recognition is the opposite of prosopagnosia, because face recognition is a type of memory ability, and it is also highly specific to visual memory of faces. The concept of super-recognition is a mirror-image of the concept of prosopagnosia, and both specifically relate to the visual memory of faces. In contrast, apophenia is a very loose and general concept; the tendency of humans to perceive meaningful patterns within stimuli or data that are actually random. Apophenia is not specific to faces or to visual stimuli, and it is a more general term than pareidolia, which I’ve previously written about at this blog. The concept of apophenia seems to me to be too vague a concept to have any scientific utility or meaning, rather like the concept of autism. That’s my opinion, but I’m open to good arguments against it.

Another objection that I have to the idea of apophenia as the opposite of prosopagnosia is the apparent assumption that nature cannot create a biological system of face recognition that is accurate and doesn’t have a tendency towards either false positives (type I error or identifying unfamiliar faces as familiar) or false negatives (type II error or identifying familiar faces as unfamiliar). The source of this type of erroneous thinking about face recognition is the common (among scientists and non-scientists) miscategorisation of face recognition as a form of sensory perception rather than a form of visual memory. As far as I know there’s not anything necessarily amiss about the way prosopagnosics see or perceive faces. They don’t see faces as blurs or blanks. They just don’t remember them. And there’s no reason to think that supers have anything super about the way we see faces. There’s nothing super-human about my eyesight acuity or my ability to identify facial expressions. There’s also nothing in my face recognition ability that looks like any trend towards false positives. As I’ve explained in the first post in this blog, I’m not prone to incorrectly identifying strangers as familiar people, as has been observed in some stroke patients. Very occasionally I’ve had interaction between synaesthesia and face recognition, but this doesn’t affect accuracy.

There’s no reason for skepticism of the proposition that evolution can design a visual memory system that is amazingly swift and accurate and operates unconsciously and automatically. This is simply how visual perception works, for humans and for animals that are seen as much less cerebral than humans. Apparently there’s evidence that the humble pigeon can recognize human faces, and other bird species appear to have evolved the ability to visually recognize the difference between the speckles of their own eggs and those of similar eggs laid by the parasitic cuckoo bird. Evolution can achieve accuracy in systems, if there is a need for such systems to evolve, but it is also plausible that such abilities might be uneven in levels within populations, as variation within populations is completely normal and necessary in biological systems.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/seeing-patterns-(even-when-they-aren%E2%80%99t-there)/8421130

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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 (such as Elizabeth Loftus) and also those who offer arguments against the idea of natural or inborn talent (such as K. Anders Ericssson) 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:

https://books.google.com.au/books?id=OdKOCwAAQBAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s

 

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.
http://www.sciencewa.net.au/topics/health-a-medicine/item/3902-colour-blindness-may-aid-in-search-and-rescue-efforts

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.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-07/vision-scientist-explains-colour-blindness/5371294

 

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

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/09/24/1421881112.full.pdf?with-ds=yes

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28258-our-knack-for-remembering-faces-is-a-highly-evolved-skill/

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

http://www.mediaforensics.com.au/security-monitoring-centres/

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
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21232-why-some-wasps-are-good-with-faces–and-others-arent.html

Wasps have a good memory for a face
by Aria Pearson
New Scientist September 2008
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14776-wasps-have-a-good-memory-for-a-face.html

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

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21242-brains-wired-for-language-if-only-chimps-could-talk.html

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.