Tag Archives: Animal recognition

Poor Kenny

If you have ever doubted that simply looking at faces can be used to identify genetic disorders, consider case of Kenny the (very inbred) white tiger. Even though he is an entirely different species than us, we can tell just by looking at his face that something is seriously amiss. http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/kenny-white-tiger-reveals-price-inbreeding

The fusiform face area doesn’t just do faces

Tolga Çukur, Alexander G. Huth, Shinji Nishimoto and Jack L. Gallant

Functional Subdomains within Human FFA.

Journal of Neuroscience.

16 October 2013  33(42) p.16748-16766

doi: 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.1259-13.2013

http://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/42/16748.abstract

As I’ve pointed out before at this blog, I believe that my high ability in face memory is accompanied by higher than average ability in recognizing or remembering the appearance of other types of things, such as body parts, words, cars, plant species, colours and probably other things as well. What this means in practice is that I’m a pretty good speller, reader and writer, I’m great at remembering and recognize faces (even if I can’t always put a name to the face and I don’t always acknowledge that I’ve recognized a person), and I’m also very good at identifiying plants and skilled at categorizing them as weeds or wild native plants or exotic garden varieties, because I can be confident that I know exactly which species the plant is, based on recognizing the shapes and colours of plants. I also believe that high ability in visual memory for many categories of things runs in my family, and I offer this as an explanation for why extraordinary test results for literacy skills and also literacy-related careers seem to run in one lineage in my family. I contrast this genetic literacy gift with an opposite condition which I have also seen running in some families, in which people struggle to express themselves in print, write in a style that mimicks speech and not the writing of others, consistently spell in a way that looks like random phonetic guessing, and who appear to have no ability to remember the way that correctly-spelled words look. If the fusiform face area (FFA) in the fusiform gyrus in the brain is the place that “does” face visual memory and plant visual memory and word visual memory, then having a good one is a definite advantage in many ways.

Pareidolia at Sculptures by the Sea – our child clearly has an excellent left fusiform gyrus

Shipwreck by Steve Croquett at Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe 2012

Shipwreck by Steve Croquett at Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe 2012

I took our youngest with me when I visited this year’s Sculptures by the Sea at what is known to some locals as Cottesloe Main Beach. We had a wonderful time, and her favourite scuplture was the lounge room made of sandbags on the sea shore (Comfort Zone by Alessandra Rossi), but I think our child really got more fun out of playing with other kids with the sculpture Xing by Graeme Pattison. I would love to see some local government pruchase this sculpture for installation at a playground. As soon as she saw the Shipwreck sculpture by Steve Croquett our child identified it as two faces, not a shipwreck. This instant interpretation no surprise to me. Even as a baby our child has had an uncanny ability to detect visual patterns which are not apparent to others. I once noticed our child as a baby laughing at the calendar that was hanging in our kitchen. It was a freebie produced by our local council and it had a rather cheap attempt at art in it, in which a photo of faces was superimposed with some other image in a way that made the cheery faces rather hard to pick, but our little girl had noticed them. Our child was also quite gifted at spotting spiders all around the house which no one else noticed, even very small ones, very thin Daddy-long-legs spiders, and spiders way up on the ceiling. Our young one also loves to point out animal shapes in clouds, or in shapes found in natural objects, and I can always see the same thing when my attention is drawn to the shapes by our child. I suspect that our child’s interest and perhaps talent in identifying visual patterns might be genetically related to my unusual ability in face recognition. She has at times expressed observations that appear to be evidence of synaesthesia, which I experience and which runs in our family, but it is hard to know what to make of this as our child is young and some synesthesia researchers believe that all young children experience synaesthesia.

It appears that the term that is used for the ability to spot face-like visual patterns is pareidolia, but the definition of this term found in the Wikipedia isn’t really the same as what our child does. The Wikipedia defines pareidolia as a psychological phenomenon in which random or vague stimulus is perceived as significant. Our child doesn’t percieve the shapes as significant – our child percieves the shapes in non-face objects as resembling faces, but clearly understands that they are just resemblances, and there is no indication that our child thinks there is anything particularly significant about what is seen. The term pareidolia is also too general to define what our child does – our child notices patterns in visual stimuli to an unusual degree, but does not notice patterns in auditory stimuli to any unusual degree, as far as I can tell, but the term pareidolia appears to be not sepcific to any sensory mode. I would like to see a more specific term for identifying patterns in random or vague visual stimuli and an even more specific term for identifying faces in random or vague visual stimuli. I’m surprised that scientists haven’t already created terms for these things.

In January of this year an interesting  fMRI study exploring the relationship between pareidolia and face perception was published in the science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. One of the authors of the study is from Dartmouth College and another is from MIT, two US universities where world-leading studies on face recognition are done. Two interesting articles about the study were also published in January, one at Wired magazine and the other at MIT News. To summarize the findings, the pattern of activations found in the left and the right fusiform gryri were interpreted as evidence that the left fusiform gyrus does the job of noticing face-like patterns in images, while the right fusiform gyrus also performed face processing, but did not duplicate the task done by the left, but instead performed the job of deciding whether or not a face-like image is in fact a real face. It is thought that these brain areas work together to interpret images. So it appears that the department of pareidolia in the brain is the left fusiform gyrus, while judgements about what is a real face are performed in a separate but similar and linked part of the brain. I think this arrangement will make sense to anyone who understands the processes that give rise to creativity and reflective thought. Different modes of thinking by different parts of the brain, in a series of stages, make up the process of intellectual creation. Turn-taking and specialization are features of this type of process, and it is no surprise to me that a most important part of the brain, the fusiform gyrus, also works in this way.

Sculptures by the Sea  http://www.sculpturebythesea.com/Home.aspx

Wikipedia. Pareidolia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia

Brown, Mark How does your brain know when a face is really a face? Wired.co.uk January 10th 2012.  http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-01/10/face-perception

Trafton, Anne How does our brain know what is a face and what’s not? MIT News. January 9th 2012.  http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/face-perception-0109.html

Ming Meng, Tharian Cherian, Gaurav Singal, Pawan Sinha Lateralization of face processing in the human brain. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published online before print January 4, 2012. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1784.   http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/01/03/rspb.2011.1784.abstract

Would super-recognition be relevant to performance as a radiologist?

Costandi, Mo (2011) Doctors diagnose diseases as if recognising objects. Neurophilosophy. guardian.co.uk December 20th 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/neurophilosophy/2011/dec/20/1

Melo M , Scarpin DJ , Amaro E Jr, Passos RBD , Sato JR , et al. (2011) How Doctors Generate Diagnostic Hypotheses: A Study of Radiological Diagnosis with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28752. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028752 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0028752

 

Reading in the brain and spotting things in the wild

I wish I had more time to write about the really interesting book Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention by Stanislas Dehaene. It isn’t a new book, I believe it came out in 2009, but if you are interested in reading as a cognitive ability, or have an interest in dyslexia or are generally interested in the workings of the brain, I would recommend this book. I believe the author is an important researcher, and thus is highly qualified to write this book, which sets him apart from many other authors of popular science and popular psychology books. Dehaene identifies and solves the great mystery of reading. According to my understanding of this book,  reading is generally processed in the same parts of the brain for all readers, so it appears that these parts of the brain have evolved to be specialized for reading. But this is not possible – humans have only had writing symbols and reading for a very recent time in the history of our species. Dehaene solves this mystery, and you can read about this solution in this book.

I especially like this book because within it I have found the answers to a number of mysteries that I have been wondering about for a long time. Is there a link between the synaesthesia and the above-average reading abilities of some members of my family? It appears that the answer is “yes”. Brain hyperconnectivity is the best explanation of the physical basis of synaesthesia, and Dehaene explains in his book  that “a “bushy” vision of the brain, with several functions that operate in parallel, has replaced the early serial model” of how the brain operates, and this bushy model is very applicable to reading. Synaesthetes have brains that are bushy, at least in some regions, and reading requires a bushy brain. We should therefore not be surprised if at least some types of synaesthesia  (there are certainly different types) are associated with superior or precocious reading ability. The descriptions of research on the visual processing of objects and faces in monkeys that can be found in chapter three of the book are particularly interesting to me because they seem to be a description of the neural basis of some unusual aspects of The Strange Phenomenon, the great mystery that inspired me to start this blog.

In this book I found striking pictorial explanation of why there seems to be a link between reading ability and face reading ability in our family. When I saw in Figure 2.6 of that book on page 74 the way that the regions in the underside of the brain that are specialized to detect objects, written words, faces and “houses” are situated right next-door to each other and overlap, I was pretty amazed and knew this explained a lot about the abilities of myself and some of my kin. We must have an unusual level of development in this region, which I guess must be the fusiform gyrus, but isn’t given a label in the book. This overlap of brain areas specialized for faces and “houses” would explain why prosopagnosia and agnosia for scenes appear to be often found together. I believe that it also indicates that there could be a link between reading ability and face recognition ability, at least in some people. At the website for this book this figure is labelled as Figure 2.1 and can be viewed here: http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/img/small/Diapositive12.jpg

This is a quote from the caption to Figure 2.6: “Reading always activates an area located between the peak responses to faces and to objects”. I think this would explain why we have advanced readers and also a person who is unusually good at reading and recognizing faces in our family. I think it also could explain some of our childhood hobbies. When I was a child I had one of those hobbies that involves spotting, inspecting, evaluating and collecting found objects from natural environments. This was a highly visual hobby (and also quite tactile), and it was a wonderful thing because it was a pathway towards a great love of nature and a fascination with science and biology. It was also good for fresh air, sunshine and exercise, things that the lifestyles of kids seem to lack these days. One of our kids also had a keen childhood hobby that also involved an element of seeing and identifying different types of objects within the same category. The difference was that these objects were technological, not natural, and are way too big and expensive to collect. All the same, it could be described as a “spotting” hobby, like trainspotting, birdspotting etc. There is a link between “spotting” type hobbies or skills and face recognition, because both face recognition and “within-category identification” are done in the fusiform gyrus. I’m not sure where it was that I read that some study found that car salesmen were found to use the same part of the brain as is used for face recognition when they were given the task of identifying motor vehicles, an area of professional expertise for this group.

Why do people have “spotting” hobbies that are not directly useful? Why has natural selection resulted in people who like to do apparently useless actvities such as looking at trains or collecting shells? It isn’t too hard to think of an explanation in terms of evolutionary adaptations. The ability to visually spot, identify and pursue or avoid objects (animals, vegetable foodstuffs) in natural environments was probably one of the most essential skills that a caveman/cavelady could have had, to find food and to avoid being food for some larger animal. It would be a big ask to expect that modern humans should completely break this habit that has most certainly been highly selected for in the human gene pool.

Today just out of curiosity I picked a few berries off a Rhagodia baccata plant during my morning walk (I like to know the proper scientific names of certain categories of things), and the berries tasted truly dreadful, but a bit sweet. The taste was almost as horrible as the taste of the native quandong fruit, which is regarded by some as a type of food. I’m certainly glad that I don’t have to rely on my prehistoric food-gathering skills.

References

Dehaene, Stanislas Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention. Viking, 2009. http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/intro.htm 

Full-colour figures from this wonderful book: http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/figures.htm

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_gyrus&oldid=419089814