Tag Archives: Autism

Definitely synaesthesia, including mirror-touch synaesthesia, something to do with this

I’d never heard of autonomous sensory meridian response until a few moments ago when I was half-watching the arts tv show The Mix, with a story on it about an upcoming show Blacklist by SuppleFox scheduled for the Dark Mofo arts festival at Tasmania’s always-interesting MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). Synaesthesia is a theme that has already been explored at MONA.

I definitely think some of this ASMR bizzo is one or another type of synaesthesia, and I’m also sure there are folks out there who will insist it impinges on the territory of the various sensory hyper-sensitivity conditions identified by some OTs, and also the controversial territory of autism. I do wonder what the point is, of trying to make art out of neurologically-based phenomena that are highly individualised. Most people are not synaesthetic, at least to the degree that they could score a passing grade in the Synaesthesia Battery, so I’ve got to wonder what all those non-syanesthetes get out of art that explores or uses synaesthesia. If most people do not experience touch sensations in response to watching people running fingers through hair or suffering injuries, and most people get no particular thrill from listening to whispering (which is white and whispy in appearance), then I suspect that art based on these effects will have a limited appeal. It’s quite a conversation-starter, nevertheless.

I find it interesting that in the ABC story about Blacklist video of a person buttering toast is shown, because when I butter toast or scones that triggers a type of synaesthesia in which I “see” in my mind’s eye scenes of places that I have not visited for many years or decades, just as I saw them then. I suspect that for these ASMR people their trigger would be the sound of toast being scraped, while for me the trigger is definitely the performance of the fine-motor movements involved in buttering, with a specificity to such a fine degree that buttering crumbly scones triggers a different set of scenes than buttering toast.

I also find it interesting that one scene in the story, in which a woman lies in a tank of water holding her breath, reminds me of some scenes from one of my absolute favourite films, Mad Detective, in which the main character who is labelled as mad is subversively depicted in the film as strangley gifted with extraordinary powers of perception and insight into the characters and motivations of others (he “sees” their “inner selves”). The mad detective creates experiences for himself that simulate the experiences of murder victims, with the aim of triggering some kind of supernatural shared memory or insight into the facts of the crime. In one scene he has himself rolled down stairs in a suitcase and in another he gets a colleague to bury him in a forrest. The relationship between experiential or sensory triggers and evoked memories or experiences is interestingly similar to the way many of my more interesting varieties of synaesthesia operate, and as a super-recognizer, I’ve got to be fascinated by a protagonist in a movie who has a rare gift of special knowledge about other people. The plot of the movies seems to be very much based on an insight that only a synaesthete would truly understand; that the only way to experience a synaesthesia concurrent (which is usually clearly some kind of memory) is to trigger it by experiencing, first-hand, the exact and specific synaesthesia inducer. It cannot be imagined. It cannot be triggered by any other means. It cannot be experienced by a non-synaesthete, or by a synaesthete who does not have exactly the same synaesthesia association. When the mad detective places himself into extreme situations, he seems to be operating under the same rule; that only the exact same experience can unlock a memory or an insight through perception. I can’t believe that this movie was made without a major contribution from a synaesthete. Another big hint that the main character is some kind of synaesthete is the thing at the start of the film with the highly spontaneous self-amputation of an ear. I hasten to point out that this is not a common behaviour among synaesthetes, and the millions of synaesthetes in the world are generally pretty sane people, but there is one famous person from the past who was unhinged and also one of us. There is plenty of evidence in the archived correspondences of Vincent van Gogh that he was a synaestete. He was always writing about concepts or experiences corresponding with colours. You can’t claim to know the arts without knowing a thing or two about synaesthesia, and synaesthetes.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/abcnews24/programs/the-mix/  (story about Blacklist at around 5.30)




University of Western Australia researchers’ model of face gender published in PLoS ONE

Garland, Carys Face ‘model’ accurately weighs gender points. ScienceNetwork WA. July 6th 2014.


The mathematical model of face gender that these UWA researchers have come up with seems like a sensible enough idea to me (and who am I to criticise?) but I’m very doubtful of just about everything stated about face gender and its relation to autism that is written in the Science Network article.

Gilani SZ, Rooney K, Shafait F, Walters M, Mian A (2014) Geometric Facial Gender Scoring: Objectivity of Perception. PLoS ONE 9(6): e99483. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099483


The “Bloody Mary Illusion” from New Scientist

http://youtu.be/cpF6CgxvvUo    Have you tried it? What did you “see”?

The Bloody Mary Illusion seems to be in some ways similar to another face perception illusion that was evoked by a video which I wrote about at this blog quite a while ago. Here’s links to some versions of the Ugly Face Illusion or the Flashed Face Distortion Effect from New Scientist:  http://youtu.be/o1gtxAIXoiY   http://youtu.be/o1gtxAIXoiY  and here’s another YouTube video not from another source:  http://youtu.be/WMTv4Cpj_8k

I wonder, do some people experience face perception distortion illusions more readily or quickly than others? Could this possibly explain why some people, including some of the people on the autistic spectrum, appear to avoid eye contact? I also wonder whether there is any relationship between face memory or face recognition ability, or facial expression reading ability and a person’s potential to experience face perception illusions. There you go academics! There’s some more ideas of mine to steal. Don’t thank me! (I’m sure the thought wouldn’t enter your heads anyway).

I’m not sure how these facial perception illusions work, but I suspect that they work on a similar principle to an auditory illusion that I’ve read about and heard, in which muted, ambiguous or perceptually confusing stimuli provoke the brain into interpreting the sounds as words. This sound illusion was apparently discovered by Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology who studies interesting stuff like the psychology f music and perfect pitch ability. Her Phantom Words illusion can be found here: http://philomel.com/phantom_words/example_phantom_words.php

Just for fun, here’s a link to Jamie Frater’s Top 10 Incredible Sound Illusions:  http://listverse.com/2008/02/29/top-10-incredible-sound-illusions/

Where are tests for people who suspect they or their kids have prosopagnosia?

The top search term leading to this blog for the last month has been “prosopagnosia test”, even though this blog is primarily about the opposite condition of super-recognition, and also covers another brain-based peculiarity of mine which is synaesthesia. I also write about prosopagnosia and link to relevant resources because I understand the importance of face memory as a human ability which we are all assumed to possess, but which many people do not possess. I’m sure the recent upswing in interest in testing for prosopagnosia or face-blindness or facial agnosia or a disability in face memory is due to the famous actor Brad Pitt’s recently publicized interview in Esquire magazine in which he revealed that he suspects that he has prosopagnosia, and his poor face memory has had a definite negative impact on his social life. He has been lucky in that an American expert in face memory and prosopagnosia has publicly offered testing and brain imaging to Mr Pitt. This is great, but whether he takes up this offer is his decision. What about less famous people who have similar suspicions about their own face memory ability or that of a person in their life? What about parents who suspect that their child or children might have prosopagnosia? We know that one type of prosopagnosia is developmental prosopagnosia, which affects people from early in life and can run in families and is certainly genetically inherited. Don’t assume that it is a disability that kids will grow out of; as far as I know this is not true. We have good reasons for believing that children who can’t recognize faces and therefore probably have social difficulties and possibly anxiety issues as a result would be especially at risk of being wrongly diagnosed and stigmatized as being on the autistic spectrum. It is very important that people of all ages who might have prosopagnosia be identified, informed and if possible helped. We are in the midst of an upswing in interest in this issue. So where is the help? Where are the tests? Where should Australians or British people wanting to know about prosopagnosia testing go to for help?

After searching thru many dead links I’ve found a link that appears to lead to an online version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test. This is probably the best face memory test available today. There are two versions; the short and the long form. The short version has 72 questions in it. It can be important to know which you did, but I suspect that the test linked to here will give a score in the proper context. http://www.icn.ucl.ac.uk/facetests/fgcfmt/fgCFMT.php

For the testing of children, one of the leading face memory researchers who created the CFMT, Dr Brad Duchaine, and two other researchers, Kirsten Dalrymple and Jesse Gomez, have created the CFMT-Kids, which “…is available to other researchers”, so I’ll guess parents will have to find a face memory researcher in their city (good luck) and do some begging.  I don’t know if this test is available online, but I suspect that it isn’t.  http://w.journalofvision.org/content/12/9/492.short

For help and advice I guess Faceblind.org would be the best place to look on the internet:  http://www.faceblind.org/


Kirsten Dalrymple, Jesse Gomez and Brad Duchaine CFMT-Kids: A new test of face memory for children. Journal of Vision. August 13th 2012 vol. 12 no. 9 article 492. doi: 10.1167/12.9.492.


Kirsten A. Dalrymple, Sherryse Corrow, Albert Yonas and Brad Duchaine Developmental prosopagnosia in childhood. Cognitive Neuropsychology. 29:5-6, 393-418.  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02643294.2012.722547#.UaRRDrU3B8E   http://www.faceblind.org/social_perception/papers/Dalrymple%20et%20al%202012%20CN.pdf

I don’t see what you see, and vice versa

This blog post from Dr Kevin Mitchell, a synesthesia, brain connectivity and developmental neurogenetics researcher from Trinity College in Dublin at his interesting blog Wiring the Brain is well worth a read, and I think is very relevant to finding an explanation for my gifts and peculiarities in visual perception. I was amazed by the normal variation in size of visual processing areas of the brain, which is probably genetic in origin and isolated from other traits. Australian cognitive science researcher Dr Jon Brock at Macquarie University left a comment suggesting a related possible area for research into autism.

“A negative correlation that has been observed between size of V1 and size of prefrontal cortex in humans might be consistent with such an antagonistic model of cortical patterning.” Fascinating! I’ve got to wonder if this has any relevance to understanding Benson’s syndrome or posterior cortical atrophy or PCA.

Dr Mitchell’s blog has been in my blogroll for a long time, and if you are looking for some interesting holiday reading about the psychology of visual processing or neuroscience, a good starting point might be my blogroll.

Do you see what I see? by Dr Kevin Mitchell December 12th 2012 Wiring the Brain. http://www.wiringthebrain.com/2012/12/do-you-see-what-i-see.html

Left anterior temporal lobe versus right anterior temporal lobe – does one really need to be autistic to have excellent visual memory?

I’m not a paid researcher and I don’t work in a university, so when I discover new things that help to make sense of my unusual visual processing experiences (various visual types of synaesthesia, IMLM, scene-concept synaesthesia, super-recognition, The Strange Phenomenon etc) it is often by accident as I go about my usual lifestyle. It was only an accident many years ago that I found out that synaesthesia is a neuropsychological phenomenon recognized by science, when I was reading about another subject that interested me at the time, and synaesthesia was mentioned in passing and described in a quaint footnote. The other day I was at my local library looking thru a pile of New Scientist magazines to select issues that I hadn’t read. I didn’t realise that I’d borrowed one from 2010, but when I opened it up at an article about research that has demonstrated how visual memory can be enhanced I wasn’t sorry that I took that old issue off the shelf.

This article, which sadly is behind a paywall, but can probably be easily accessed in hard-copy thru any good public library, is not about face memory or face recognition, but I think it is still an interesting clue about what might be different about my brain. As I’ve written before in articles that I’ve published here, it is my belief that there is a general enhancement in the functioning of the right temporal lobe areas of my brain, which includes the fusiform gyrus on the right, which includes the fusiform face area on the right. I guess my fusiform gyrus on the left is probably working well also. The thing that makes this article so interesting to me is that it seems to show that at least part of the left and right temporal lobes work in opposition to each other, and when the activity of the right is boosted while the activity of the left is inhibited the result is an enhancement of visual memory. Could a naturally-occuring skewed relationship between left and right in the temporal lobes be an explanation for my test scores consistent with me being a super-recognizer of faces? Has some bright-spark researcher at a uni somewhere done a version of the transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) study discussed in this article, exploring face memory? If I was a researcher that is what I’d be looking at.

The other aspect of this article that I find striking is the view of autism that it presents. Science magazines are full of stories about autism research, and as a reader of these publications I’ve read my fair share of such stories, but I’ve never before read an article depicting autism as a natural enhancement in visual memory. I guess such a benefit of autism might be implied in the many books and articles that have been published about autistic savants who create realistic art (Stephen Wiltshire and Gregory Blackstock would be some fine examples), and no doubt an enhanced visual memory could also be behind the many autistic people who have superior navigation ability, but what I’ve generally found is that most books and articles about autism don’t delve very far into brain-based explanations of autistic enhancement of visual memory. As I recall, behavioural explanations are far more common than neuropsychological explanations – autistic people’s special visual abilities are often dismissively described as being the result of obsessive, repetitive learning. Clearly there is more to it than that. In this article by Sujata Gupta in New Scientist autism is explicitly linked with enhancement in visual memory. So does one need to be autistic to have superior visual memory? And how does this all relate to face memory? What is the relationship between autism and super-recognition, if any? I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for researchers to tackle these questions.

Gupta, Sujata Little brain zap, big memory boost. New Scientist. August 14th 2010. Issue 2773 p.16.

Online reference: Skull electrodes give memory a boost. New Scientist. 13 August 2010 by Sujata Gupta Magazine issue 2773. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727733.900-skull-electrodes-give-memory-a-boost.html

It appears that the study described in the above article has not been published in a journal yet, but below is the details of a paper about a similar study co-authored by Richard Chi:

Paulo S. Boggio, Felipe Fregni, Claudia Valasek, Sophie Ellwood, Richard Chi, Jason Gallate, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, and Allan Snyder
Temporal Lobe Cortical Electrical Stimulation during the Encoding and Retrieval Phase Reduces False Memories.
PLoS ONE. 2009; 4(3): e4959. Published online 2009 March 25. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004959 PMCID: PMC2655647

Can autism be seen in the face?

It appears that there are three typical autism faces in boys diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions, which are associated with distinct characteristics.

Kristina Aldridge, Ian D George, Kimberly K Cole, Jordan R Austin, T Nicole Takahashi, Ye Duan and Judith H Miles

Facial phenotypes in subgroups of prepubertal boys with autism spectrum disorders are correlated with clinical phenotypes.

Molecular Autism 2011, 2:15   http://www.molecularautism.com/content/2/1/15   http://www.molecularautism.com/content/pdf/2040-2392-2-15.pdf

New study with scientifically sound test finds people with Asperger syndrome vary greatly in face recognition ability – can face recognition be a savant ability?

Face recognition performance of individuals with Asperger syndrome on the Cambridge face memory test.
Darren Hedley, Neil Brewer, Robyn Young
Autism Research.
Article first published online: 24 AUG 2011
DOI: 10.1002/aur.214    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aur.214/abstract

This article is still in press, but was published online last month. This study had 34 subjects with Asperger syndrome and 42 nonautistic controls. It appears that while around a quarter of the study subjects with Asperger syndrome in this study have prosopagnosia (as defined by a test score from 2 to 3 SD’s below normal or mean), Asperger syndrome (a type of autism) is also not inconsistent with superior performance on the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), which is the best test of face recognition that I know of. Some features of the study that perhaps distinguish it from other studies of face recognition in autism are the use of a reliable and valid test of face recognition (Duchaine & Nakayama 2006), the study of face recognition in adults, not children, which is really important because face learning ability appears to be a skill that peaks at a surprisingly late stage in the life-span, into the third decade (Germine, Duchaine & Nakayama 2011), and if autistic people have a delay in development that could potentially affect or bias the results of studies of children and youths.

I was particularly interested in looking at the data for individual study subjects, but for some reason, in journal papers this seems to always be included in a miniature table that is either unreadable or unprintable, or both, or is absent altogether. Persevering, I was interested to find that none of the non-autistic study participants got a score in the prosopagnosia range, while eight out of 34 of the Asperger participants did, so there seems to be a definite association between having prosopagnosia and having a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome (AS). But at the other end of the spectrum of ability, the top score of the whole study, which I think must have been close to the super-recognizer range at 1.75, was achieved by a participant with AS, and there were two other with AS who got great scores. It appears that a fair proportion of those with AS got close to average scores. To the naked eye, it appears that there is a greater variation in face recognition ability in those with AS than in the normal adults tested. Why? Should we just accept this as a brute fact about AS, or should we look for special explanations for the top or bottom achievers in the AS group?

Is there something special about the top performers in the AS group? Given that there appears to be a link between autism and synaesthesia, and synaesthesia appears to be sometimes associated with savant-like superior ability in specific sensory or cognitive tasks (Banissy et al 2011) (Banissy, Walsh & Ward 2009) (Baron-Cohen et al 2007) (Simner, Mayo & Spiller 2009), and the association between savantism and autism is generally accepted, should we then ask if the three top-performing participants with AS might be synaesthetes who also have AS? If these connections are found in reality, should we then include superior face recognition (“super-recognizers”) among the many varied areas of mental performance that are regarded as savant skills and abilities? I have already discovered in a 2010 study of face recognition in the broader autism phenotype (BAP) one CFMT score from a father of an autistic child that appears to be close to a super-recognizer level of performance (Wilson et al 2010), as defined as two or more SD’s above the mean. I would have thought that this isn’t what researchers would expect to find in studies of autism or the BAP which use study participants who aren’t selected for any particular level of face recognition ability.

I’ve got to wonder whether people (children?) whose main social disability is prosopagnosia have been clumsily lumped into the category of autism. It appears that over three-quarters of the autistic subjects did not have a “severe face recognition impairment”, so we certainly can’t say that a severe impairment is typical of the group of people who have Asperger syndrome (AS) in this study, and my reading of the “enhanced perceptual functioning model” of autism seems to suggest that autistic people should have an advantage at visual tasks (Samson et al 2011). We know that prosopagnosia is a fairly common but not well recognized disability, and that the diagnosis rates for things like AS and autism have been climbing steadily for a long time. The question of why this has happened is one that has provoked huge controversy – is there a genuine increase in autism rates, or are more and more people being placed into the category, due to lower thresholds of “severity” required for a diagnosis, or the category of autism indiscriminately devouring other categories of people, such as the intellectually disabled and other uncommon or rare disabilities?

The possibility that prosopagnosics can be (incorrectly?) identified as cases of autism was demonstrated in a story about prosopagnosia from the Australian science television series Catalyst which was broadcast in 2007 (see link below). An anecdote about two children in a family which was later found to have members with developmental prosopagnosia, who had previously been diagnosed with autism, was recounted by a prosopagnosia researcher from Macquarie University and dramatized on the show. I should point out that neither of the face perception tests shown in this story are the CFMT. One face recognition test shown in the Catalyst story uses the faces of famous people and it relies upon the person being tested already knowing about the famous person and being able to give a name for the famous face, two tasks which are not face recognition, so as a test of face recognition it is far from pure and perfect.


Banissy, Michael J., Garrido, Lucia, Kusnir, Flor, Duchaine, Bradley, Walsh, Vincent and Ward, Jamie Superior Facial Expression, But Not Identity Recognition, in Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1820-1824. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5759-09.2011  http://www.faceblind.org/social_perception/papers/Banissy11JN.pdf       http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/31/5/1820

Banissy, Michael J., Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Enhanced sensory perception in synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. 2009 Jul;196(4):565-71. Epub 2009 Jun 17. http://www.springerlink.com/content/406581u3507un270/   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19533108

Baron-Cohen S, Bor D, Billington J, Asher JE, Wheelwright S and Ashwin C. Savant memory in a man with colour form-number synaesthesia and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Consciousness Studies. volume 14, number 9-10, September-October 2007, p. 237-251.  http://www.imprint.co.uk/jcs_14_9-10.html

Duchaine, Brad & Nakayama, Ken The Cambridge Face Memory Test: Results for neurologically intact individuals and an investigation of its validity using inverted face stimuli and prosopagnosic participants. Neuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585.

Face blindness. Catalyst. ABC. broadcast 19/07/2007  http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s1982889.htm  (This story showed face recognition testing at Macquarie University and includes a small sample of the tests which viewers can try)

Germine, Laura T., Duchaine, Bradley, Nakayama, Ken Where cognitive development and aging meet: Face learning ability peaks after age 30. Cognition, Volume 118, Issue 2, February 2011, Pages 201-210http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027710002611

Hedley, Darren, Brewer, Neil, Young, Robyn Face recognition performance of individuals with Asperger syndrome on the Cambridge face memory test. Autism Research. Article first published online: 24 AUG 2011         DOI: 10.1002/aur.214    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aur.214/abstract

Samson, Fabienne, Mottron, Laurent, Soulieres, Isabelle & Zeffiro, Thomas A. Enhanced visual functioning in autism: an ALE meta-analysis. Human Brain Mapping. Article first published online: 4 APR 2011 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.21307 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.21307/abstract

Simner, Julia, Mayo, Neil, Spiller, Mary-Jane A foundation for savantism? Visuo-spatial synaesthetes present with cognitive benefits. Cortex. Volume 45, issue 10, November-December 2009, Pages 1246-1260.

Wilson CE, Freeman P, Brock J, Burton AM, Palermo R Facial Identity Recognition in the Broader Autism Phenotype. PLoS ONE 2010 5(9): e12876. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012876

Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year

What follows is a summary of dealings between scientists and myself during the past year, including testing at a university, in my not very successful quest to answer my question “Am I a super-recognizer?”

September 14th 2010 I sent an email to a prominent face perception/prosopagnosia researcher in the US who I will give the name “A”. This is the text that I wrote and sent (unspellchecked):

“For quite a while I’ve been having some unsual experiences that seem to be related to face recognition. Out of curiousity I have done some online face recognition tests, and I was surprised that I got some high and perfect scores. This led me to read with interest the 2009 journal paper about super-recognizers. Some of the experiences reported by these people appear to be similar to my experiences. I would like to have a go at two of the tests used in that study – the Before They Were Famous Test and the Cambridge Face Recognition Test Long Form. Would that be possible? I would be most grateful if you could help. I live in Australia. I’ve already done the short form test.”

September 15th 2010 Sent email to researcher B in the US with same text as the above email.

September 15th 2010 From B a brief and polite reply referring me to another researcher/academic in the US (“C”) who was given a copy of my email.

September 17th 2010 Got brief polite reply from the US researcher C explaining that the test that I wanted to do can’t be done over the internet but testing through a local university might be possible.

September 16th 2010 (dates out of order due to differing time zones?) To C I sent a brief polite reply listing the universities that are local to me.

September 18th 2010 Reply from C who wrote would get back to me. Emailing tests also a possibility.

September 20th 2010 Reply from A apology for delay–busy time at work. Referred me to researcher C.

September 21st 2010 I emailed A to tell A that I was in contact with C who might be able to help.

September 26th 2010 I sent an email to the cognitive science department at the Australian eastern states university for which I filled in two long questionnaires a couple of years ago for synaesthesia researchers. I explained that I thought I might be a “super-recognizer” and I’d like to get access to difficult tests of face recognition if possible, from Perth, and I mentioned that I’m a synaesthete. This email got no reply.

October 9th 2010 Sent an email to an Australian researcher who has published research about prosopagnosia (disability in face recognition) at the above Australian eastern states university. This email got no reply.

October 17th 2010 To C in the US I sent a very brief email “Any luck?” I received no reply.

October 18th 2010 I emailed a face perception researcher D at a WA university explaining that I thought I might be a super-recognizer, would like to access the “Before They Were Famous Test” if possible, had contacted overseas researchers to this end, am a synaesthete who could show results from The Synesthesia Battery, and believed there was a connection between my synaesthesia and my apparently top ability in face recognition.

October 19th 2010 Reply email from D explaining that testing could be done with different tests that they have which should give similar information. I was referred to research assistant E.

October 19th 2010 I sent brief reply to D.

October 20th 2010 Brief reply from D.

October 20th to November 2nd 2011 Seven emails from research assistant (RA), and me replying, to schedule and reschedule a date for me to go to the WA university for testing at a time that suited all.

November 5th 2010 I went to the university and did the testing. I met D and RA. The face recognition tests that I did were both on a computer.

Details of the testing that I did at a WA university on November 5th 2010

As I recall it, I was asked to fill in a consent form (pen and paper), two questionnaires (pen and paper) and to do two computerised tests of face recognition.

One of the questionnaires asked about my exposure to people of a Chinese racial heritage during my life. This was obviously to help interpret scores of one of the tests, in which faces were males of Asian appearance. The other questionnaire was presented as a questionnaire about personality (I think this might have been the title of the questionnaire). Many of the questions seemed familiar. I believe the questionnaire was the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), which I did just out of interest a number of years ago when I found it in an appendix of a pop psychology book which I had read. I don’t recall any mention of autism in the consent form or on the questionnaire itself, or verbally from the research assistant.

One of the tests of face recognition that I did at the university was a version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). The faces were all Caucasian males. I recall that some (maybe all?) of the faces in the test that I did at the university were different faces than those in the online test that I had already done. At the time I assumed that it was an alternative short version of the CFMT, but in hindsight I now wonder if it could possibly have been the long form of the CFMT.

The other face recognition test that I did was apparently a test created at the university. I recall the faces as young male adults of an Asian race, but according to info sent by email from the university this test also had Caucasian faces. I recall they had fairly negative facial expressions (sad, angry) and they were not an attractive bunch. I recall I had to compare faces initially viewed from a front, full-face angle with faces later presented from a profile (90 degrees) angle. After being presented with faces to memorize on the computer I was required to do a visual search task with pen and paper for a specific time period, presumably to prevent me from using any conscious and deliberate method for remembering the faces. I found this test so difficult that I don’t believe that this test reliably engaged the normal process of face recognition. I recall doing this test using conscious strategies such as comparing specific facial features or skin colour, rather than experiencing or not experiencing that sudden natural feeling of familiarity that marks natural face recognition. I wouldn’t be surprised if I scored barely over a chance score. Many different factors could be suggested to explain the difficulty of this test. I have read that people naturally have a bias towards and an expertise in recognizing faces of one’s own race, so this would make the Asian faces trickier for me, as I’ve not been exposed much to Asian faces in my life. I have also read that there is a bias against recognizing unattractive faces. In a journal paper about the CFMT I read that face recognition works best on faces viewed from the front, so identifying faces presented in profile should be challenging. I believe that my own natural advantage in face recognition involves semi-automatically personifying faces, or ascribing personalities to the faces, using the same brain mechanisms that give rise to my ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia. I suspect that the cold expressions, the unfamiliar race and the unattractive forms of the faces could have worked against this personifying process. The thing that I believe did the most to make this test difficult or a non-test was the use of a 90 degree profile angle for face recognition. I think it’s just too big an extrapolation to “know” a face from the profile after viewing it briefly from the front. This is also an unnatural task. Who socialises or chats while staring away at right angles from the person you are supposed to be engaging socially with? According to what I’ve read, there have been tests created by researchers intended as tests of face recognition that didn’t really work as such, and designing such a test isn’t as simple a task as one might think. If the test that I did at the university didn’t work as a face recognition test, I think it would still present an opportunity to discover more about the nature of face recognition, in pondering why it did not work, if this is the case.

I was given a small amount of money to cover my travel costs after the testing, and was thanked by a very nice and polite research assistant. After the testing researcher D and I had a brief chat in an office. We spoke about the influence of ethnic differences in appearance on face recognition testing. The researcher asked about the odd experience that sparked my interest in face recognition. It was difficult to explain, and I couldn’t mention any of the names attached to the faces involved. I spoke a bit about my synaesthesia, but the researcher didn’t seem terrifically interested. I said I was still keen to do the Before They Were Famous test. The researcher said that might be possible.

November 9th 2010 I sent email to RA asking if the test scores of mine were available yet.

November 9th 2010 Email from RA advised that she would be away till Nov. 23rd 2010.

November 9th 2010 I emailed D and asked if my test results were available yet.

November 10th 2010 D replied that RA was on leave and should be able to give results shortly after that date.

November 23rd 2010 Apologetic email from RA advising that results not yet processed but should be available at the end of the week.

November 24rd 2010 Sent email reminding RA that my results from The Synesthesia Battery can be shared electronically if they are interested.

November 26th 2010 Email from RA. Thanked for offer of scores from Synesthesia Battery but not needed at that stage. A summary of two tests that I completed was given. I was advised that my score in the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) was 96%. The RA did not specify whether I had done the long or short version of this test, and I had assumed that I’d done some short version of the test, so I didn’t ask about this. In hindsight it would be nice to know for sure exactly which version of the CFMT I did. I was advised that I scored 96% on this test, with an average score given as 78%. A score of 96% in the short form (72 items) would indicate that the subject is not a super-recognizer, while a score of 96% in the long version (102 items) would confirm that the subject is indeed a super-recognizer, but in my case there is the problem that I’ve already had practice doing the short form of the test. When I got this news I wondered about the score of 96% considering that I had already done the short CFMT twice (inadvertently done a second time as a part of a battery of tests available online) and had scored 100% both times. But the CFMT that I did at the university was not the same version that I did online.

A summary of the face test with male Asian-looking faces that I did at the university was given. The RA explained that the test is new and they did not yet have enough data to know what an average score is, so giving me my score would be meaningless. She advised that “a comment on your results” should be available shortly.

December 2nd 2010 I sent a brief email to RA asking about any news of the cross-race face recognition test.

December 3rd 2010 Reply from RA advising that they were still processing data and would give results as soon as possible, not sure when. I think this was the last contact I’ve had with anyone at this university.

December 4th 2010 My blog “Am I a super-recognizer?” begun with the publication of its first article, a description of The Strange Phenomenon.

December 20th 2010 I sent an email to researcher A with link to my new blog “Am I a super-recognizer?” which at the time mostly consisted of a description of The Strange Phenomenon. A brief correspondence followed in which A suggested a visual disturbance as an explanation, and I argued against that.

I have sent a number of emails to selected researchers in cognitive science/psychology all around the world with a link to my blog shortly after I created it. Some researchers replied with appreciative comments (by email). One of the researchers that I informed about my blog was from the Australian eastern states university that I had sent emails to in Sept-Oct 2010. That researcher left a brief comment at my blog.

To date no researcher that I’ve been in contact with has ever asked about my synaesthesia, or asked about my scores on The Synesthesia Battery or asked for professional access to my online scores (which can be arranged apparently).

I don’t receive feedback or comments about my blog from scientists/academics/researchers any more, but I have received some interesting comments from educated people from various corners of the world about complex types of synaesthesia that we have in common, phenomena that to my knowledge have not previously been described or studied by scientists. Science is much too important to be left to the scientists.

References and further reading

Duchaine, Brad & Nakayama, Ken The Cambridge Face Memory Test: Results for neurologically intact individuals and an investigation of its validity using inverted face stimuli and prosopagnosic participants. Neuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585. http://visionlab.harvard.edu/members/ken/Ken%20papers%20for%20web%20page/137neuropsychologiaDuchaine2006.pdf

Russell R, Duchaine B, Nakayama K Super-recognizers: people with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.2009 Apr;16(2):252-7. http://pbr.psychonomic-journals.org/content/16/2/252.full.pdf

Take the AQ test. Wired. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html

Wikipedia contributors Autism Spectrum Quotient. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Autism_Spectrum_Quotient&oldid=434143629

Wikipedia contributors Cross-race effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cross-race_effect&oldid=436739510

Costandi, Mo Why do people of other races all look alike? Neurophilosophy Guardian.co.uk August 15th 2011  http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/neurophilosophy/2011/aug/15/people-other-races-look-alike

Wilson, C. E., Brock. J., Burton, A. M., & Palermo, R. (in press). Recognition of own and other-race faces in autism spectrum disorder. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.  http://sites.google.com/site/drjonbrock/publications/recognition-of-own–and-other-race-faces-in-autism-spectrum-disorder

Anything interesting in upcoming academic book about face processing?

I’ve had a quick look at an upcoming large academic book about face perception that is currently listed and searchable at the Amazon.com website. The title is Oxford Handbook of Face Perception and it is due for publication this October. For a book of this size and price it looks like there will be surprisingly little in it of interest to me, despite my interest in face recognition and other neuroscience subjects.

It looks like there will be little or no discussion of the subject of synaesthesia in the book, which would be something of an oversight considering that there appears to be a fair amount of evidence supporting the idea that under-connectivity in the brain could be cause of serious deficits in face recognition (prosopagnosia) in at least some cases of prosopagnosia, and under-connectivity could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, a harmless neurological condition of which some varieties are associated with increased connectivity in the brain’s white matter. The upcoming book does appear to have some discussion of under-connectivity and prosopagnosia, but it appears nothing much about conditions that can be found the opposite end of the spectrum of face processing ability, things such as super-recognizers and synaesthesia. There is a whole section of the book devoted to disorders including prosopagnosia, while I can find no indication from the contents or searching the text of the book that there will be any coverage of superiority in face recognition. It also appears that there is no coverage of superiority in facial emotion perception. I was recently fascinated to learn that a number of studies have found that superior identification of emotional expressions is associated with some disorders, including borderline personality disorder. As far as I can tell there’s nothing about this in this book. This lack of coverage of superior face perception doesn’t surprise me. I believe that, unless confronted with contrary evidence, most people, including academics and teachers, assume that the clever end of the bell curve is just the result of normal brains that are just lucky enough to have missed out on the types of problems that might impair cognitive performance. If this were true, there wouldn’t be anything terribly interesting to find in studying people who have very high IQs or people who have specific areas of high intellectual ability such as superior interpersonal skills, musical gifts, ease in language learning, impressive calculation abilities or an unusual facility in recognizing faces. If these talents and abilities were just the result of lots of practice and/or a super-normal brain, then these abilities would hardly be worth studying. Of course, we all know that there are some most unusual people who have special gifts, the male autistic or disabled savants that we read about in books by Oliver Sacks, but such people are thought to be rare as hen’s teeth, and kept hidden away.

Everyone knows what a savant is, but no one expects to ever meet one. I think this could be one reason why the teachers from the gifted and talented program that is run through our local government school district thought it was necessary to conduct a talk a few years ago for the parents of gifted students, to explain how these students are often quite different from bright but not gifted students. The teachers introduced us to the concept of asychronous development in gifted children. Gifted children often develop on a schedule that is unique to them and may develop in different domains on very different timetables. We were told that gifted kids can have intellectual, social and emotional development that are at very different stages, and such kids can have uneven levels of achievement across the range of school subjects. There is an obvious similarity between the concepts of asynchronous development in the gifted and the concept of the savant, which is generally thought of as a disabled or autistic person who has one area of cognitive brilliance that contrasts with overall poor performance (the reality of savantism isn’t really this simple). A clear point of distinction between the savant and the gifted child with uneven development is a hard thing to find. Another thing that the parents of the gifted were told that night is that the group of kids who passed the testing to get into the gifted program included some children who were already diagnosed with something from a range of psychiatric diagnoses such as ADHD, Asperger’s Disorder or Autistic Disorder. The gifted aren’t just super-normals. The gifted are unique. The gifted are often different, not just in level of achievement, but in type. Are there more or less synaesthetes among the gifted than we would expect to find, given what we know about the commonality of this interesting neurological condition? I don’t think this has been researched yet. The gifted are different. This is why I believe that there could be a lot of interesting things to find if scientists would study the gifted with as much enthusiasm as they target the deficient. This is why I think it is a pity that in this day and age we have textbooks about reading that have a chapter about dyslexia but nothing about advanced or precocious readers, and door-stopper texts about face perception that appear to ignore super-recognizers and expert emotion-readers. Maybe next decade.


Andy Calder, Gillian Rhodes, Mark Johnson, Jim Haxby Oxford Handbook of Face Perception (Oxford Handbook Series) Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (October 1, 2011) http://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Handbook-Face-Perception/dp/0199559058/ref=sr_1_43?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310687539&sr=1-43

Tolan, Stephanie Giftedness As Asynchronous Development.  http://www.stephanietolan.com/gt_as_asynch.htm

Domes G, Czieschnek D, Weidler F, Berger C, Fast K, Herpertz SC. Recognition of facial affect in Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders. 2008 Apr;22(2):135-47. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18419234

Fertuck EA, Jekal A, Song I, Wyman B, Morris MC, Wilson ST, Brodsky BS, Stanley B Enhanced ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ in borderline personality disorder compared to healthy controls. Psychological Medicine. 2009 Dec;39(12):1979-88. Epub 2009 May 22. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19460187

Wagner AW, Linehan MM. Facial expression recognition ability among women with borderline personality disorder: implications for emotion regulation? Journal of Personality Disorders. 1999 Winter;13(4):329-44.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10633314