Tag Archives: BBC

Super-recognizers, superrecognisers, superrecognition, super-recognisers, superrecognizers, super-recognition, whatever: a collection of studies, reading, viewing and tests

Published and Unpublished Research About Super-recognizers

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   This is the study that launched the concept of the super-recognizer in 2009. One of the researchers who wrote this paper has the opposite neurological condition – prosopagnosia.

Russell, Richard, Yue, Xiaomin, Nakayama, Ken and Tootell, Roger B. H.  Neural differences between developmental prosopagnosics and super-recognizers. Journal of Vision. August 6, 2010 vol. 10 no. 7 article 582 doi: 10.1167/10.7.582 http://www.journalofvision.org/content/10/7/582.short Abstract only available. Prosopagnosics had smaller fusiform face areas than the super-recognizers.

Davis, J.P., Lander, K., Evans, R. and Neville, M. (2012) Facial identification from CCTV: investigating predictors of exceptional performance amongst police officers. In: European Association of Psychology and Law 2012, 10-13 Apr 2012, Nicosia, Cyprus. (Unpublished)  http://gala.gre.ac.uk/8462/  This paper was presented at a conference, with authors apparently including Dr Josh Davis and Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville. A lengthy and interesting abstract is openly available but the full paper has restricted access. I have not read full paper. See also below.

Davis, J.P., Lander, K. & Evans, R. (2013). Facial identification from CCTV: Investigating predictors of exceptional face recognition performance amongst police officers. Manuscript submitted for publication. This citation was taken from the list of reference in a 2013 article in The Psychologist.

Richard Russell, Garga Chatterjee, Ken Nakayama Developmental prosopagnosia and super-recognition: No special role for surface reflectance processing.  Neuropsychologia 50 (2012) 334– 340. http://public.gettysburg.edu/~rrussell/Russell_etal_2012.pdf

Hoflinger, Laura Hirnforschung – Superhelden aus dem Museum. Der Spiegel. Volume 11 2012 p.129-131. Article in German, an English translation can be downloaded free in PDF form from Superrecognizers website: http://superrecognizers.squarespace.com/  This article in a popular German magazine reports on the 2011-2012 study of super-recognizers done by Dr Ashok Jansari and his team at UEL, recruiting study subjects from visitors the the Science museum in London. This study has not yet been published in a science journal, but according to a 2013 article by Jansari and other researchers it is being perpared for publication.

Davis, J.P., Lander, K., and Jansari, A. I never forget a face. Psychologist. October 2013. 26(10), 726-729. http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm?volumeID=26&editionID=231&ArticleID=2347 Essential reading on the subject of super-recognizers. Covers the history of the concept of the super-recognizer, use of supers in UK police and summarizes studies of supers including the original 2009 study and studies by Davis and by Jansari which have yet to be published as journal papers. Lots of interesting info from unpublished and published studies, speculation about what causes super-recognition, the prevalence of super-recognition and whether the ability is generalised to higher ability in other types of visual identification, and discussion of the definition of super-recognition and potential for effective and deliberate use of supers in working roles. This article/paper is in an edition of this professional journal titled “The age of the superhuman” which has other material in it about superrecognition and memory superiority.)

Bobak, Anna, Bate, Sarah and Parris, Ben Group differences in the scanning of faces: Insights from ‘super-recognizers’, developmental prosopagnosia and individuals with typical face memory. CogDev 2013: Joint Annual Conference of the BPS Cognitive and Developmental Sections, University of Reading, 4-6 Sept 2013. p.77-78.  http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/FILES/pcls/COGDEV2013FINAL.pdf  “The current work investigates the eye-movement patterns during face study and recognition in super-recognizers, individuals with developmental prosopagnosia and matched control participants.” The researchers reportedly found a clear relationship between superiority in face recognition ability (as expressed by membership of either of the three categories of subjects) and looking at the eyes relatively more of the time than looking at the mouth, during learning and also in recognition phases of the task.

Russell, Richard ???? An article about super-recognizers by Caroline Williams published in 2012 in New Scientist magazine claimed that Russell and his research team have done an fMRI study of super-recognizers and the paper was due for publication in late 2012. Assistant Prof. Russell was quoted as saying that supers “seem to be using their brains somewhat differently”. Can’t wait to read this paper.

“Sparrow 2010” ????? This study is mentioned in a discussion of super-recognizers at the web page of the face-recognition research team at the University of East London “The first research in the UK to address this phenomenon was undertaken as part of an MSc project at UEL producing very promising corroborative findings (Sparrow, 2010). ” http://www.uel.ac.uk/psychology/research/face-recognition/ I have not been able to find publication details of this study and I think it remains unpublished. A researcher by the name S. S. Sparrow has had other papers published in the area of autism and face perception. Dr Ashok Jansari was quoted in a 2013 article in The Psychologist in a piece about super-recognizer Moira Jones in the Digest section that “I set up an MSc project to look for super-recognisers in 2010 and have been exploring the phenomenon ever since.”

Tests Which Can be Used to Identify Super-recognizers

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 participantsNeuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585. http://visionlab.harvard.edu/members/ken/Ken%20papers%20for%20web%20page/137neuropsychologiaDuchaine2006.pdf  This is the study that validated the test of face memory that has become the “gold standard”, and which is used to identify super-recognizers

Are you ready to find out if you may be a super recogniser? https://greenwichuniversity.eu.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_9ZVm6G3McDma37D  A three-minute test from Dr Josh Davis, the University of Greenwich and Qualtrics.

Are you a “super-recognizer”? Take a test. 60 Minutes. CBS News. March 18, 2012.http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7402555n&tag=segementExtraScroller;housing

Television News and Current Affairs Reports About Super-recognizers and Face Recognition

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

Are you a “super-recognizer”? Take a test. 60 Minutes. CBS News. March 18, 2012.http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7402555n&tag=segementExtraScroller;housing

Comments on: Are you a “super-recognizer”? Take a test. http://www.cbsnews.com/8601-504803_162-57399111.html?assetTypeId=41&blogId=10391709&tag=postComments;commentWrapper

Face Blindness. Reporter – Lesley Stahl, Producer – Shari Finkelstein, 60 Minutes, CBS News, Broadcast March 18th 2012. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57399118/face-blindness-when-everyone-is-a-stranger/?tag=contentMain;contentBody

Super-recognisers (The One Show, BBC 1 Scotland): Dr Josh P Davis….  YouTube. Broadcast on BBC1 on 9th April 2013. Uploaded by Dr Josh P. Davis, copyright owned by BBC1 Scotland. http://youtu.be/PuPfQ8UZTGQ In this clip from The One Show Dr Michael Mosley interviews super-recognizer policeman Gary Collins and super-recognition researcher Dr Josh Davis.

Police super-recognisers. reporter Sharon Thomas London Tonight. London Regional News. ITV. Tue Feb 28 2012  http://www.itnsource.com/en/jp/shotlist/ITN/2012/02/28/T28021245/?v=0&a=1 See it on YouTube: http://youtu.be/7QA4ih5u-vk PC Gary Collins from the Metropolitan Police and researcher Dr Josh Davis were interviewed.

Super-Recognisers on Planetopia (German TV) featuring Dr Josh P Davis…. YouTube Published October 2012.
http://youtu.be/F3NhZUTWPno  Also published here:  http://youtu.be/7KxqnaTZCOo An interesting video of a special report about super-recognizers on a German TV show in German.

Dr Josh P. Davis http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3rErlc6ayyZb1ROLvPQPtA?feature=watch YouTube channel of this researcher.

Radio Stories About Super-recognizers

Hammond, Claudia Super recognizers. BBC Radio 4. first broadcast 25 Jan 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00q3fbv

Super-recognizer Researchers’ Web Pages and Websites

Superrecognizers. http://superrecognizers.squarespace.com/ A website of Dr Ashok Jansari and his team at the University of East London

Face-Recognition Research Team, UEL School of Psychology http://www.uel.ac.uk/psychology/research/face-recognition/ Dr Jansari is the team leader

http://www.joshpdavis.org.uk/#!news/mainPage news page at website of Dr Josh P. Davis of the University of Greenwich

Social Perception Lab, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College http://www.faceblind.org/social_perception/index.html  Superrecognition authority and prosopagnosia researcher Assoc. Prof. Brad Duchaine is the PI at this lab.

Richard Russell http://public.gettysburg.edu/~rrussell/index.html  Website of face perception researcher Richard Russell Assistant Professor of Psychology Gettysburg College Psychology Department

Academic Book Chapter About Super-recognizers Scheduled for publication in 2014:

Valentine, T., & Davis, J.P. (Editors). Forensic Facial Identification. Wiley Blackwell.  (Authors will be Dr Josh P Davis from University of Greenwich and Professor Tim Valentine from Goldsmiths, University of London)

Popular non-fiction book apparently written by a British super-recognizer police officer:

Officer “A” The Crime Factory: The Shocking True Story of a Front-Line CID Detective. Mainstream Publishing, 5 April 2012. This book was published under a nom de plume or pen name, but some sources give Andy Jennings as the author’s name. This is a quite sensationalist account of a now-retired UK police undercover detective’s career experiences while working in Australia for the WA Police Force (WAPOL). This book includes many descriptions of blunders and inadequacies of WAPOL. There has been debate among readers about how much of this book is fiction. A passage on page 12 suggests that the author is a super-recognizer and there is discussion on page 53 of what it is like to have a “photographic memory”. I have written about this book here. 

Reddit discussion about a super-recognizer and a prosopagnosic who are in a relationship

MyNameIs BrookeToo I am a faceblind girl dating a super-recognizer. AUsA. Reddit. Discussion started March 25th 2012. http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/rcgh8/i_am_a_faceblind_girl_dating_a_superrecognizer/  A fascinating and long discussion in which a prosopagnosic lady using the name MyNameIs BrookeToo and her super-recognizer boyfriend using the name Shandog answer many questions.

Science Journal, Magazine, Science News and Press Articles About Super-recognizers

Rutherford, Pam Never forgetting a face. BBC News. January 25th 2010 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8474827.stm

Grimston, Jack Eagle-Eye of the Yard can spot rioters by their ears.  Sunday Times, The, 20.11.2011, p12,13-12,13, 1; Language: EN Section: News Edition: 01. EBSCOhost Accession number 7EH53940939 http://www.faceblind.org/social_perception/papers/Supers.pdf  A substantial article but not easy to obtain in full text

Hoflinger, Laura Hirnforschung – Superhelden aus dem Museum. Der Spiegel. Volume 11 2012 p.129-131. Article in German, an English translation can be downloaded free in PDF form from Superrecognizers website: http://superrecognizers.squarespace.com/ This article in a popular German magazine reports on the 2011-2012 study of super-recognizers done by Dr Ashok Jansari and his team at UEL, a study which to my knowledge has not yet been published in a science journal.)

Williams, Caroline Face savers. New Scientist. 15 September 2012 no.2882 pages 36-39.   online title: ‘Super-recognisers’ have amazing memory for faces. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528821.500-superrecognisers-have-amazing-memory-for-faces.html Worth a read. Caroline Williams has also written an article about prosopagnosia for this magazine. I have found one letter by Maryse Palemans in response to the above article, published in October 2012 in the magazine, in which Maryse recounted how a super-recognizer father surprised a policeman met 20 years earlier by recognizing him, an amusing reversal of the usual theme of police super-recognizers identifying members of the public. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21628861.200-ello-ello-ello.html

How to recognise the super-recognisers. British Psychological Society. August 30th 2012. http://www.bps.org.uk/news/how-recognise-super-recognisers

(a short discussion of research by Davis, Lander and Evans.)

Davis, J.P. Super-recognisers in the police: Exceptional at face recognition, highly meticulous or viewing the right CCTV footage at the wrong time – for the criminal? University of Kent Research Seminar Series. February 2013.    http://media.wix.com/ugd/81aef3_e5f728b80964b0a3e805181574b2b248.pdf

(an abstract of a seminar which apparently was not presented)

Storr, Will Human image banks: meet the Met’s ‘Super recognisers’. Telegraph. March 26th 2013.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9942759/Human-image-banks-meet-the-Mets-Super-recognisers.html

(A substantial article about the work of police super-recognizer Idris Bada and other police supers. DCI Mick Neville interviewed. PC Martin Lotriet also identified as a police super. Dr Josh Davis interviewed, and his surname misspelt.)

‘Super recognisers’ turn gaze on Carnival. Metropolitan Police: Total Policing. August 21st 2013.  http://content.met.police.uk/News/Super-recognisers-turn-gaze-on-Carnival/1400019306715/1257246745756

(A brief article in a police publication. Number of identified supers in the Metropolitan Police given as 180. Includes the interesting claim that super police officers can remember not only faces but also names, birth dates and other details of offenders, which highlights the fact that memory is based in the initial encoding of information, which may be limited or detailed.)

Gaidos, Susan Familiar faces. Science News.  Web edition August 23rd 2013, Print edition September 7th 2013. Volume 184 Number 5 p.16. http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/352687/description/Familiar_faces

(Science News is the “Magazine of the Society for Science & the Public”. A substantial article. Julian Lim, Carrie Shanafelt and Ajay Jansari (brother of super-recognizer researcher Dr Ashok Jansari) identified as super-recognizers. Researchers interviewed include Bradley Duchaine, Ashok Jansari, Irving Biederman, Nancy Kanwisher, Josh P. Davis and Joe DeGutis. Interesting info about possible directions of future research.)

Taylor, Matthew Police ‘super recognisers’ to keep watch over Notting Hill carnival. Guardian. August 24th 2013.  http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/aug/23/police-super-recognisers-notting-hill-carnival

(An article about plans for the huge upcoming Notting Hill Carnival in England, including the planned first ever significant use of (police) super-recognizers to monitor a live event. Chief Superintendent Mick Johnson from the Metropolitan Police interviewed. Police super Patrick O’Riordan interviewed.)

Perry, Susan ‘Super recognizers’: People who never forget a face. MinnPost. August 29th 2013.  http://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2013/08/super-recognizers-people-who-never-forget-face

(Science News article by Gaidos summarized. Use of supers by UK police discussed. Research by Dr Isabel Gauthier on use of face recognition brain areas for specialist visual ID of classes of objects is discussed.)

Buckland, Danny Police officers’ superhuman ability to recognise faces is being used to fight crime. Express. September 1st 2013.  http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/426014/Police-officers-superhuman-ability-to-recognise-faces-is-being-used-to-fight-crime

(includes photo of Metropolitan Police super-recognizers Paul Hyland, Kieran Grant and Patrick O’Riordan. The use of supers by The Met during the Notting Hill Carnival described. Police supers and super-recognition researcher Dr Ashok Jansari interviewed and asserts the superiority of humans over technology in face recognition.)

Cheng, Maria, Keaten, Jamey, Associated Press Don’t I know you? If London police’s super recognizers have met you before, the answer is yes. Canada.com September 27th 2013.  http://www.canada.com/health/Dont+know+London+polices+super+recognizers+have+before+answer/8965531/story.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+canwest%2FF67+(canada.com+Body+and+Health)

(“Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Paris.” Police super-recognizer Paul Hyland discussed. Use of Met police supers at Notting Hill Carnival described. Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville gives figures for achievements of police super-recognizers versus a facial recognition program showing vast inferiority of the technology. Opinions from legal experts about use of supers as expert witnesses is recounted, critical view from privacy advocate recounted, and use of supers in obtaining search warrants discussed. Major super-recognition researchers interviewed. Dr Josh Davis discusses plans for more research and a new test. Dr Brad Duchaine claims supers are superior to technology.)

AP/Cheng, Maria London Police Use Super Recognizers to Fight Crime. Time. September 27th 2013.  http://world.time.com/2013/09/27/london-police-use-super-recognizers-to-fight-crime/#ixzz2hkafR9rC

(same as above)

Cheng, Maria / AP Super Recognizers Used By London Police To Fight Crime. Huffington Post. September 27th 2013.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/27/super-recognizers_n_4002839.html

(same as above)

Jaslow, Ryan London police using 200 super-recognizers: What makes them “super”?. CBS News. September 27th 2013.  http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-204_162-57605067/london-police-using-200-super-recognizers-what-makes-them-super/

(Superrecognition researcher Prof. Richard Russell interviewed, estimates super-recognizers are 1 in 1,000.)

Camber, Rebecca The man who NEVER forgets the face: How Scotland Yard’s elite squad of 200 ‘super recognisers’ can spot a suspect in a crowd. MailOnline. Daily Mail. September 27th 2013.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2435043/Scotland-Yards-elite-squad-200-super-recognisers-forget-face.html#ixzz2gFQzxiVF

(similar to the AP article but shorter and with interesting photos.)

AP London police use super recognizers to fight crime. Times of India. September 28th 2013.  http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/uk/London-police-use-super-recognizers-to-fight-crime/articleshow/23191190.cms

(Same article as one by Cheng, Keaten and AP)

Cheng, Maria, Associated Press Super recognisers help Scotland Yard fight crime. National. September 27th 2013.  http://www.thenational.ae/world/europe/super-recognisers-help-scotland-yard-fight-crime

(similar to other articles)

AP London police use super recognisers to fight crime. Gulf News. September 27th 2013.  http://gulfnews.com/news/world/london-police-use-super-recognisers-to-fight-crime-1.1236204

(similar to other articles)

Cheng, Maria, Associated Press Don’t I know you? London police squad of elite super recognizers a new concept. Windsor Star. September 28th 2013.  http://www.windsorstar.com/know+London+police+squad+elite+super+recognizers+concept/8971850/story.html

(appears to be an edited version of AP story)

McFarland, Sam Digest: We meet people who have or research ‘super’ abilities. Psychologist. Volume 26 Part 10 October 2013. p.716-717.

http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm?volumeID=26&editionID=231&ArticleID=2345

(Interesting brief piece of autobiographical writing by super-recognizer Moira Jones about her ability and how it has been useful in her past work in retail. Also comments by researcher Dr Ashok Jansari summarizing the span of his research on supers which includes recruiting Jones as a study subject. Also in the same issue a substantial article about super-recognizers. )

Davis, J.P., Lander, K., and Jansari, A. I never forget a face. Psychologist. October 2013. 26(10), 726-729. http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm?volumeID=26&editionID=231&ArticleID=2347

(Essential reading on the subject of super-recognizers. Covers the history of the concept of the super-recognizer, use of supers in UK police and summarizes studies of supers including the original 2009 study and studies by Davis and by Jansari which have yet to be published as journal papers. Lots of interesting info from unpublished and published studies, speculation about what causes super-recognition, the prevalence of super-recognition and whether the ability is generalised to higher ability in other types of visual identification, and discussion of the definition of super-recognition and potential for effective and deliberate use of supers in working roles. This article/paper is in an edition of this professional journal titled “The age of the superhuman” which has other material in it about superrecognition and memory superiority.)

Bremer, Bruce Some London police are “super-recognizers”. Law Enforcement Today. October 5th 2013. http://lawenforcementtoday.com/2013/10/05/some-london-police-are-%E2%80%9Csuper-recognizers%E2%80%9D/

(A brief article from a US police publication confirming that the use of supers by the police force in London is currently unique in the world. Also see the detailed clarifying comment by Mick Neville.)

Jarrett, Christian Day 2 of Digest super Week: meet a super-recogniser. BPS Research Digest. October 8th 2013.  http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com.au/2013/10/day-2-of-digest-super-week-meet-super.html

(appears to be the same as the piece in The Psychologist by Sam McFarland about Moira Jones)

If you know of any substantial item that should be in this list but isn’t, please let me know in a comment.

Radio show and article from BBC last year about super-recognizers

There was a great blitz of pop science articles about superrecognizers in 2009, probably the result of a bit of awareness-raising by researchers. More recent mass media stuff on the subject is quite rare, so I thought it worth noting these interesting BBC items from last year. The interesting experiences of Jennifer the super-recognizer and Clare with acquired prosopagnosia are recounted in the Rutherford article. A quote from a researcher:

“One of the most exciting implications of this work is that while we assume we all see the same things, this work suggests that at least in terms of looking at faces we don’t see the same things.”

A quote from the summary of the radio program:

“As many as 1 in 50 people are prosopagnosic but many won’t know they have a problem. What are the implications for border control, policing and eye witness evidence?”

Never forgetting a face
by Pam Rutherford
January 25th 2010
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8474827.stm

Super recognizers
by Claudia Hammond
BBC Radio 4
first broadcast 25 Jan 2010
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00q3fbv

I’ve discovered another face memory test

It can be accessed from this page at the website of the BBC:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/

I can’t find any information about which scientists might have created this test.

I had a crack at it. There seemed to be something weird going on with clicking on answers, but it did work.

It appears that the test measures two things – face memory and also “temporal memory” which seems to be the ability to judge when you saw the image, rather than whether or not you saw it.

My scores were “Recognition score 200% Average score 92%” and “Temporal memory score 91% Average score 68%”

I’m not quite sure what the 200% means, but in the details of my results of the test it says I recognized all 48 photos in both 24 photo sets, so I guess it means I got a perfect score twice for each set of photos. I found the basic face recognition element of this test very easy, easy knowing which I had and also which photos I hadn’t seen before. I did identify one photo that I hadn’t seen previously as one that I had, but this was towards the beginning of the test and I hadn’t read the question properly and understood that I was to identify the photo, not the face. The photo which I scored as a false-positive identification was I believe a face, but not a photo that I had seen before, hence the mistake. There’s an odd discrepancy in the results given for the items not seen. The text says I got two false positives, while the responses recorded for individual items suggests I only got one false positive. I believe I only got one. The average false positive score given is one to three.

I think the fact that I only scored one (two?) false-positive identification in this face memory test shows that I do not have some type of hyperfamiliarity, misidentification or delusion disorder as a basis of my superior face recognition abilities or my experience of The Strange Phenomenon.

I thought that one of the faces shown in the test, an oldish man, looked like an old David Bowie, and another face reminded me a lot of my late father-in-law, no doubt he came from the same part of the world. But I’m sharp enough to see that these faces weren’t those of David Bowie or one of my in-laws. This is a topic that I might write about later – recognizing strong similarities between the faces of people who are not obviously connected.

Super-recognizer test? Forget it mate!

I’ve noticed that quite consistently searches that lead people to this blog appear to be people searching for a test relevant to being a super-recognizer, which is a person who has an elite level of ability in recognizing faces, a most useful skill in many ways, and a skill that would be relevant to a number of jobs. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who is hoping to gain access to a super-recognizer test, but the fact is that I only know of one test that I know enough about it to say that it could decisively separate super-recognizers from simply good face recognizers, and I have been unsuccessfully been trying to gain access to that test since September of 2010. The test is the Before They Were Famous Test (BTWF), and it was one of the two face recognition tests that were used in the study that was written-up in the science journal paper that launched the concept of the super-recognizer in 2009. I’d love to get to do the BTWF Test, even though there would most likely be subtle cultural differences that might impair my performance on that test. I believe the BTWF Test is a test that uses the faces of celebrities, and I’m sure it was created outside of Australia, and so I would assume that those celebrities would not include any Australian celebrities, and I am an Australian. Nevertheless, I was keen to have a go at this test. I was so keen that I volunteered as a study subject at a local Australian university’s psychology department to do some face recognition tests. To cut a long story short, I got to do two other tests, but not the BTWF Test, and I’m still many months later waiting to be told of the results of one of those tests. Just to explain my interest in face recognition – in 2010 I got a surprise after finding that I got perfect scores on the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) and also the Famous Faces test, and then I realised that I could well be a super-recognizer. I’ve been messed around so much by Australian and overseas academics that I don’t think I’d trust them enough to do any further participation in research, and I think there is something strange about the way that I’ve been dealt with by researchers in the area of face recognition.

I find it a curious fact that of all of the researchers who I’ve told that I am a synaesthete and am willing to provide test results that show it and I also suspect that I’m a super-recognizer, not one, including the university researcher whom I’ve met first-hand, has asked to see any of my test results regarding face memory or synaesthesia. Anyone with some familiarity with the published literature about synaesthesia would surely figure that super-recognizing could well be another cognitive advantage associated with synaesthesia. Do face recognition researchers lack a basic knowledge of synaesthesia research, another area of the neuropsychology of sensory perception? Surely not. Perhaps I have misunderstood the nature of the work that university researchers do. Their job is to do highly structured research studies, with the aim of getting their reports of those studies published in science journals with a good reputation and status. I believe there is considerable pressure to achieve this and do it as often as possible. So perhaps one should not be surprised to find that researchers are only interested in non-academic, non-student people if they can fill the role of being a standardized study subject.

I believe that study subjects like me who do not conform to what appears to be the current scientific view of super-recognizers as “simply the high end of a broad distribution of face recognition ability” (Russell, Duchaine & Nakayama 2009), people like me who are synaesthetes and who score very high in tests of face recognition, are a threat to the current academic status quo, in which the conventional view is that atypical or abnormal brain structure or brain function is associated with deficits in face recognition, and good face recognition ability is taken to be a marker for normality and health and all things nice. A great many studies of face recognition have been inspired by the idea that poor ability to recognize faces and facial expressions are fundamental features of autism. Autism research is supposed to be very well-funded. Studies of face recognition that are promoted as research into the causes of autism would, I guess, attract funding. While not all autistic people are synaesthetes and not all synaesthetes are autistic, there does appear to be some type of link between autism and synaesthesia, so the idea that synaesthetes should be poor at face recognition would be consistent with the above theoretical framework. In fact, the idea that there might be a link between synaesthesia and prosopagnosia appears to be quite a common belief among academics and interested ordinary people. This is based on anecdotes and some very speculative early writing about synaesthesia. So finding a synaesthete super-recognizer who is also very good at identifying facial expressions could upset this apple cart. In any case, those nice red shiny apples seem to be destined for a bruising because of ideas that are being explored by some synaesthesia researchers who are contrasting rather than linking synaesthesia with poor face recognition and other agnosias (Mitchell 2011) or are finding connections between various types of synaesthesia and various types of enhanced perception (Banissy, Garrido et al 2011; Banissy, Walsh & Ward 2009).

The other test of face recognition that was used in the study described in Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama’s 2009 paper about super-recognizers was the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), which comes in a short and a long form. Both the short and long form are used in that study. It appears that the long form of this test was created to measure a wider range of face recognition abilities, but as can easily be seen in the paper, the long form was quite a failure in this respect. Non-super-recognizers did not fall a long way behind super-recognizers in the CFMT Long Form that much more than they did in the CFMT Short Form. Basically, super-recognizers got perfect of near-perfect scores in the 72 question CFMT Short Form, which is freely available to do over the internet, but a couple of other study subjects also got close to perfect scores in the CFMT.

So, the only thing that I can recommend to anyone who wants to know if they are a super-recognizer is to have a crack at the CFMT, read about the experiences of super-recognizers, and you might also wish to consider whether you have synaesthesia or have any brain-based special abilities or talents such as perfect pitch or high IQ. The Synesthesia Battery is a test for a number of colour-related types of synaesthesia. And remember, the whole concept of the “super-recognizer” is a thing that some academics only recently came up with. I believe the official view of super-recognizers is that they (we?) are only the extreme end of a bell curve representing natural variation in one area of ability. I personally believe that super-recognizers are probably qualitatively different from others rather than merely being quantitatively different – I believe super-recognizer ability could be an effect of synaesthesia or local hyperconnectivity, but I still wouldn’t like to say at what cut-off point in test scores super-recognizers can be identified.

P.S. December 2011

It appears that the CFMT is no longer available from two of the websites that I have linked to, and the only freely available online access to the CFMT is probably through a research study done by researchers at the MIT:  http://facetoface.mit.edu/   If you live in or near London then you might be able to go along to the superrecognizers study currently being conducted at the Science Museum by researchers from the Uni of East London and do some tests as study subjects:  http://www.superrecognizers.com/

I have tried contacting professional psychologists in WA who have private practices to see if any of them can offer access to any face recognition testing. I found a general lack of comprehension, and it appears that they generally haven’t heard of prosopagnosia, let alone super-recognizers. Apparently there is some face memory or face recognition test that is an element of an IQ test and/or vocational aptitude testing. I have not been given any details about this test or tests, and God only knows if it is of any value. There are a number of old face recognition tests, but it appears that the CFMT and the BTWF tests are the only ones that are cheat-proof and currently used by face recognition researchers. I’ve never heard of either of these tests being used as elements of vocational or IQ testing, but who knows?

The idea that superior face recognition ability could be important in employment is an idea that has been proven to be true in the case of police work, a documented example would be the elite squad of super-recognizer police officers in London’s Metropolitan Police force, which was the subject of an interesting article in the UK’s Sunday Times in November 2011. Despite the proven utility of superrecognizers in at least one important job, the idea that this is a valuable work skill appears to be an idea well ahead of our times here in sleepy Western Australia, where our time zone is two years behind the rest of the Anglophone world (except in mining). There is not only the issue that we are behind the times here, there is also the big issue of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias recognized in psychology “in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes”, to quote from Wikipedia. The Dunning-Kruger effect can also negatively affect capable people, in the opposite way “Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.” So incompetent people can have unjustified self-confidence while more capable people can under-estimate their relative superiority as a result of being ignorant or deceived about the actual level of ability of others. I would argue that the Dunning-Kruger effect is very applicable to face recognition ability. I’m sure there are many people with milder developmental prosopagnosia who don’t understand their disability, and I know myself that I never thought of myself as having superior face memory until I tried some online face recognition tests in the pursuit of any clue to the mystery of The Strange Phenomenon. I believe the full extent of the problem goes beyond not understanding one’s self. I believe that only a super-recognizer is able to understand the possibilities and advantages of this very specific type of superior visual processing. I’ve found that many people who I’ve spoken to about super-recognizers doubt that any human could perform better than current face recognition technology, an assumption that appears to be incorrect, and is probably based on ignorance. It should be clear to anyone that good face recognition ability is an essential requirement in policing and has uses in security and detective work, but I doubt that most people would guess that super-recognizing could have medical applications, can be more useful than current face recognition technology and might also have applications in tasks that involve identifying kinship relationships, possibly to do with tracing lost relatives or family history research. To independently realise all of this, a person would have to see what a super-recognizer sees, an experience that is denied to most people. If most people, including most psychologists, have no idea of the possible utility of super-recognizing, why would anyone bother testing for it or identifying it?

If you suspect that you might be a super-recognizer, and wish to have this tested and certified by a professional psychologist or have it verified by participating in university research done by a recognized expert in the field of face recognition, I hope you live in London. Your only other option appears to be taking a look at the MIT study, and taking a screen-shot print-out of any test results. Good luck!

References

Banissy, Michael J., Garrido, Lucia, Kusnir, Flor, Duchaine, Bradley, Walsh, Vincent & 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.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

Grimston, Jack Eagle-Eye of the Yard can spot rioters by their ears. Sunday Times, The, 20.11.2011, p12,13-12,13, 1; Language: EN Section: News Edition: 01 EBSCOhost Accession number 7EH53940939 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/  This interesting article is behind a paywall, so you might try EBSCOHost from your local piblic library.

Mitchell, Kevin J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization. Current Opinion in Genetics and Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568?dopt=Abstract

Russell, Richard, Yue, Xiaomin, Nakayama, Ken and Tootell, Roger B. H.  Neural differences between developmental prosopagnosics and super-recognizers.Journal of Vision. August 6, 2010 vol. 10 no. 7 article 582 doi: 10.1167/10.7.582http://www.journalofvision.org/content/10/7/582.short

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

Wikipedia contributors Dunning–Kruger effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect&oldid=466983876

Tests

MIT’s Face to Face Online Study http://facetoface.mit.edu/

“Test My Memory” from Faceblind.org – used to offer the CFMT in the past http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/

“Test My Brain” – used to offer the CFMT in the past, could try the 5 minute “Famous Faces” test http://www.testmybrain.org/

BBC Science Face Memory Test – this test no substitute for the CFMT http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/

The Synesthesia Battery http://www.synesthete.org/

Further reading about my dealings with psychology researchers:

Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year   https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/science-week-2011-%E2%80%93-the-world-of-science-and-me-in-the-past-year/

A Most Peculiar Experience

I don’t know about you, but my life has had more than a few strange moments. It is always hard to know what to say when a close friend “comes out”. There was the time when I got into trouble during a night dive on the reef. I’ll never forget meeting my complex and unusual mother-in-law for the first time at our wedding (and neither will our guests, no doubt). An aesthetically weird experience was listening to grotesquely distorted radio transmissions while touring the barren moonscape of low hills and salt flats surrounding Lake Eyre south, alone. After a while it seemed as though whispered words in a demonic voice could be discerned within the metallic noise. Working at a truck-stop in the middle of nowhere in the middle of 45 degree heat was quite an experience. There really are people in this world who enjoy a king-sized lime-flavoured milkshake. I’ve been many things and done a lot of places, or is that been many people and seen a lot of places? I’m not sure, but I’ve been around. In addition to the strange and challenging situations that any person who has lived a reasonably rounded life encounters, I also have odd experiences of a neurological nature. With the wisdom that only comes with maturity, I understand that nature has been kind to me, because she has done so much to make my life interesting.

 

The Strange Phenomenon

John* is a man who’s face I see at least once a week. John is a bit of a character, but I’ve got a lot of respect for John. John is not my friend or anything closer than that. John has an interesting face, and it attracts my attention when he is speaking. His face seems unusual in that it looks quite different when viewed from directly in front compared to how it looks viewed in profile. John has a facial feature that looks prominent in profile but looks like nothing much at all from a full-face view. This is almost like an optical illusion, and it gives John’s face quite a different “personality” when viewed from different angles. Visual curiosities like this grab my attention.

I’m not sure when it was that I first noticed “the strange phenomenon”. It has happened repeatedly over many months at least, possibly over a year. I know for sure that it was happening during the first half of 2010. While watching John (speaking or not speaking), if I was paying attention and also viewing his face from a position at around 45 degrees to the side (the only viewpoint that can capture the overall character of John’s face), and his face is also lit by natural sunlight, then, automatically and without warning, a very vivid memory of the face of Jean*, as she appeared years ago when I last saw her, viewed from exactly the same angle, would appear in my mind’s eye, sort of super-imposed over my real-time visual perception of John’s face. Once my memory of Jean and her face is “unlocked” in this way, memories come to mind about how she looked, and sometimes I recall the sound of her voice, which seems similar to John’s voice, in tone and also in emotional expression, even though there is the obvious gender difference. Maybe Jean is a bit less feminine than the average woman, but generally John and Jean seem pretty normal in terms of gender characteristics. I have never thought of them as androgynous. They both are intelligent adults and there is nothing blatantly strange in their manner or appearance. I have two theories about why this phenomenon is strongest at a 45 degree angle – this angle gives the best overview of a face, and also this view minimizes at least one gender difference between male and female faces. Men generally have broader faces than women, but this facial sexual dimorphism is minimized when viewed from the side.

I have never had this type of experience involving the faces of any other people – it only happens when I’m looking at John’s face. What’s so special about these people that they are the only faces that provoke this strange phenomenon? I will offer an explanation later. The short answer is that their faces look incredibly alike. As I remember her, Jean wore little of no makeup. I suspect that her resemblance to John might not have been as noticeable to me if she had worn enough makeup to make a difference to her facial appearance. It has been a number of years since I last saw Jean, so I don’t know if this strange phenomenon might work in reverse – with Jean’s face automatically evoking a visual memory of John’s. Jean’s face was the first of John and Jean’s faces that I ever saw. There is no overlap in time of the different periods of time when I’ve seen their faces regularly. At least five years separates these periods.

Who is Jean? Jean is a woman who served me over a counter, sometimes, at a place that I frequented for a few years about seven years ago.  I haven’t (knowingly) seen her for years. I did not know her socially and I wouldn’t say we were particularly friendly (or unfriendly). At the time there was something in her manner and presentation that gave me the impression that there could be an unusual conservatism in her personality. I hardly remember Jean, except for those times when I see her face and hear her voice with stunning clarity in my memory. (Does that make sense?) I had not thought of Jean being in any way connected to John or resembling John before the strange phenomenon started happening. I just hadn’t seen the connection before. I have no record of Jean’s appearance besides my memory, and I don’t think I ever knew her surname. Jean and John would be roughly similar in age, but they are not siblings. I am not aware of any familial connection between them, but I also can’t be absolutely sure that none exists.

The strange phenomenon is a very orderly, sensitive and predictable thing. Conditions have to be “just right” for it to happen. If John’s face is not lit by sunlight, the phenomenon will not happen. If John has a big, beaming smile, it will not happen, but a more subtle smile sometimes does not block the phenomenon. If John looks inebriated or unusually emotional in some way, the phenomenon does not happen. When John gained weight, the phenomenon stopped. Excess weight distorts and covers some elements of the appearance of the face (and is also a health hazard). The strange phenomenon does not happen if I view John’s face from a profile view, and it rarely happens when his face is viewed from a full-face angle – it generally needs to be viewed from 45 degrees. The strange phenomenon requires viewing of John’s face in the right conditions for a few moments before it happens – it happens abruptly but not instantly.

Since I was a young child I have had synesthesia/synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a common benign condition of the brain associated with an unusually rich network of connections in the white matter of the brain. Most cases are genetic in origin, and it runs in my family. One of the types of synaesthesia that I have, coloured letters and numbers, is associated with “extra activations in the fusiform gyrus” which is a part of the brain. The fusiform face area is the part of the brain that “does” face recognition. It is situated within the fusiform gyrus. It appears that there is something interesting going on in my fusiform gyrus. The strange phenomenon has many features in common with synaesthesia, and I believe it is an unusual type of synaesthesia. I believe the very specific image of John’s face seen under very specific conditions is an inducer, trigger or stimulus of my synaesthesia, and my remembered image of Jean’s face is the concurrent or additional sensory experience in my synaesthesia. Like synaesthesia, the strange phenomenon is automatic. It is not something that I “do” intentionally or wish to happen, although I find it amusing to anticipate it and then see it happen. I am sure I would be unable to prevent it by conscious will from happening. Like synaesthesia, the phenomenon is reliable. Given exactly the right conditions, it will happen.

What does the strange phenomenon feel like? The normal process that this phenomenon most feels like is face recognition, but with the twist that my mind “changes its mind” about who it is looking at. It feels as though at first my mind normally recognizes the face as John’s, with no fuss, but then it seems to impose a different interpretation, dredging up Jean as a better answer to the question of “Who is the owner of this face?” I’ve wondered why my mind should be so willing to abnormally review its original correct decision. I can only guess that there is some mechanism in the brain that gives precedence to much older face memories when choosing between very similar-looking stored memories of faces during the process of identifying a currently seen face. Alternately, my brain, and all brains, might be designed to identify not only the faces of individuals, but also to identify similarities betweenpeople’s faces, as a clue to genetic relatedness. I know enough about biology and evolution to know that intelligent animals such as humans are likely to have evolved features to help us to identify our kin and kinship between others.

Does the strange phenomenon cause emotional distress? Not to me, but it is a weird experience. Many of the types of synaesthesia that I experience are so unobtrusive and fleeting that they can go unnoted, and some types are so predictable that they feel completely ordinary. In my experience it is the types of synaesthesia that are rarely experienced and are person-triggered that are the most startling and subjectively weird. The strange phenomenon fits into both categories. It is these experiences that can make one think “WTF?” or “S*** a brick!” or “That is the strangest thing!” (to quote the title of a book about synaesthesia).

Viewing people’s faces is obviously a social-type experience. As anyone would, I feel as though I am witnessing moods and personalities when I view faces. I wouldn’t be surprised if John and Jean turned out to have similar personalities, but at the same time, I don’t feel that I can read Jean or John “like a book”.

When John gained weight the appearance of his face changed and the strange phenomenon stopped. This is not the first time that a type of synaesthesia that I’ve experienced that is triggered by particular characteristics of a person has been extinguished by a change in that person. This possibly gives me a greater appreciation of time and people, and the brevity of childhood and life in general.

There are many reasons why I believe that this strange phenomenon is interesting and unusual. It seems to be a mixture of synaesthesia, ordinary remembering and face recognition, and I’m sure this is an unusual thing. The strange phenomenon differs from ordinary remembering in many ways. It requires a very specific visual trigger, it happens repeatedly and reliably, like synaesthesia it relies on attention but is otherwise independent of conscious control, and it evokes a vivid memory of the face of a person who shouldn’t be memorable to me. This phenomenon is one of two different types of synaesthesia that I experience which automatically “unlock” vivid and often very old visual memories, giving extraordinary glimpses into a world of visual memories that are apparently stored away in my mind like photos or videotapes, but can only rarely be accessed.

Significantly, the other type of synaesthesia of mine which gives spontaneous vivid mental images evokes my memories of specific places (not people) that I have visited in the past, but which often aren’t particularly memorable. These “visions” of places look as they did last time I saw them, frozen in time. I “see” places (in my mind’s eye) that have since been demolished, and some of these images date back to scenes my early childhood. These involuntarily recalled visual memories of places are only visual experiences, they do not involve smells or sounds or other non-visual types of sensory experience. There appears to be a neurological link between the recognition of faces and the recognition of places, with disability in recognizing both of these types of things found together in some people. The famous neurologist and author Dr Oliver Sacks is one person who has prosopagnosia (a disability in recognizing faces) and also a disability in recognizing places. There appear to be two different scientific terms in use for this neurologically-based inability to recognize scenes: “agnosia for scenes” (seen in a New Scientist article) and “topographical agnosia” (Sacks 2010). In a recent article published in New Yorker magazine, and also in his recent book The Mind’s Eye, Dr Sacks described his problems with getting lost in the streets after unknowingly walking past his own house a number of times, and also being unable to recognize people he knows well. The British primatologist Dame Jane Goodall is another famous person who has trouble recognizing faces and also places. Faces and places are the only types of things that I receive spontaneous “visions” of. I am sure this is no mere coincidence. Like the strange phenomenon,  I find it amusing to anticipate receiving a “vision” of a place when the conditions are just right, and then watching it appear, suddenly, and for no logical reason.

My strange phenomenon has two features which I believe make the strange phenomenon truly strange: it involves effortless mental processing of a task that should be rather difficult (sorting through a lifetime of memories of countless faces, then matching two faces of people of different genders that look very similar from angles which give a view that is least affected by sexual dimorphism), and the strange phenomenon also manifests as a very vivid image in the mind’s eye (language and words have no role in this phenomenon).

I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and I am closely related to people who also have this type of synaesthesia and who have also been formally offered places, more than once, to gifted and talented educational programs. I believe there is a connection between the synaesthesia and the smarts. I am also in a family that has at least four generations of people who have particular talents in the areas of English and foreign languages (grapheme-colour synaesthetes are among this group). I believe it is possible that which ever genes give rise to grapheme-colour synaesthesia and related cognitive differences could be evolutionary adaptations that give an advantage in learning languages and reading. I believe it could be as simple as a gene that boosts the development of visual memory, for words, letters and also faces.

I am not aware of any description in the scientific or popular literature of an experience that is genuinely the same type of thing as the strange phenomenon. This does not make me doubt the reality of what I have experienced. I would expect that this would be a rare phenomenon, because it is the result of a combination of some most unusual factors – two different observations of a quietly unusual pair of people, separated by a very long period of time, observed by another unusual person, who has the interest in scientific matters and the inclination to try to make sense of it all. Rare things do happen, but not very often.

*Not their real names. Obviously, the true identities of John and Jean cannot be divulged.

 

Alternative ways of categorizing the strange phenomenon/competing explanations

Is it just an idiosyncratic and meaningless connection between two things due to synaesthesia?

I don’t think so. The two people objectively do look similar, so the link does not seem to be random or accidental. It’s not as though the sight of a face make me hear a sound or see a colour, the strange phenomenon only involves faces.

Is the phenomenon just the simple remembering of a similar-looking face?

No, it is different, because it is much less influenced by conscious control than simple remembering, and the memories evoked are more vivid and extensive than can be retrieved by conscious effort at remembering. Perhaps one could describe the strange phenomenon as face recognition that is “turbocharged” with synaesthesia. The strange phenomenon feels strange, because it makes me see a similarity between two faces and two people that doesn’t seem to make sense – they can’t be identical twins, because one is male and one female.

Is the phenomenon an experience typical of those of “super-recognizers”?

No, but there are many similarities. Super-recognizers report being able to recognize people who were last met many years ago and were not more than a fleeting acquaintance. My remembering Jean is like this. Super-recognizers also are able to recognize despite changes in appearance such as child to adult transition and changes of hairstyle. My recognizing of similarities in faces of different genders is similar to this. The phenomenon feels like face recognition. I have already completed some tests of face recognition ability that are readily accessible through the internet, and I got perfect scores, which could indicate that I’m a super-recognizer.

Is the phenomenon like one of those uncanny moments of noticing a family resemblance, like noticing a grandparent’s frown in a young child?

It is similar to this in that it involves similar-looking people but it also transcends stuff like gender and age, but noticing family resemblances is different in that it is unpredictable, occasional, is typically triggered by gestures or expressions, and does not typically unlock a cache of hidden memories. The strange phenomenon seems to involve the whole face, not a part of the face.

Is this phenomenon a case of mistaken identity with two very similar-looking people, in an unusual situation? (as might happen when meeting the identical twin of a person that one already knows)

This explanation seems applicable in some ways but isn’t. John and Jean do look similar, when viewed from a certain angle, but there is no mistaken identity. All the way through the strange phenomenon my conscious mind is clear about who is who, the identity confusion happens on a more primitive level. I’ve known two sets of identical twins in my past. I never liked any of them enough to care which was which.

Is the phenomenon like recognizing a previously known genetic syndrome in a number of different people, such as identifying that a stranger has Down syndrome?

The phenomenon is similar to this in that it transcends stuff like age and gender. Identifying a person as having Down syndrome is different in that (for me) it is not a strange experience and does not evoke visual memories of individuals seen in the past. I believe my brain treats Down syndrome in a similar way that it treats racial differences. Perhaps my brain would act more oddly when confronted with people who have a genetic syndrome that is not fairly common, familiar and obvious. I think it is likely that John and Jean have the same rare genetic syndrome, but I don’t know what it might be. There is more to this story than I’ve set out here.

Is the phenomenon Synaesthesia?

I believe it is. It is reliable, repetitive, automatic and involuntary like synaesthesia. I cannot voluntarily access my memories of Jean as fully as happens in the phenomenon. It does not require or involve effort. Like synaesthesia it requires paying attention to the trigger. It is sensory (visual). It involves a very specific trigger evoking a very specific experience, like synaesthesia. It happens suddenly and without warning. It “hits you”. Some types of synaesthesia are like this. It involves memory, and synesthetes are thought to have superior memory.

Why do you ask and answer your own questions?

I’m not sure, but it works for me.

 

Some explanations that I believe are NOT applicable

Some type of delusional misidentification syndrome (DMS)

There are many different recognized types of delusional syndromes that involve incorrect identification of people, and some are thought to be due to faulty face recognition or perception. I have carefully considered all of the DMS’s listed at the Wikipedia, and none of them describe the same situation as the strange phenomenon. The only type of DMS that I have heard of that is in any way similar to it is something that Dr Oliver Sacks described in his article in New Yorker, a hyperfamiliarity for faces that Sacks claims was described by Devinsky (Sacks gives no reference in this article). Sacks describes a disorder in which everyone feels familiar to a person with the disorder, and the person with the delusion might approach strangers and address them as though they are old friends. I do not do this. Even if I was a more extroverted person, I would not do this because I do not have a feeling of familiarity for masses of other people. I believe there is nothing wrong with my ability to tell the difference between faces that I have never seen, and those that I have seen in the past. I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk into a room of people and feel like I was surrounded by old friends. That doesn’t sound like me at all! I’ve had a read of the 2002-2003 journal paper by Vuilleumier et al about a case of hyperfamiliarity for unknown faces. I do not believe I have anything in common with the patient described, except that we both have good face recognition abilities (the title of the paper appears to be a typo). Neither John nor Jean were unfamiliar to me during the time when the strange phenomenon started. Their faces were and are not unfamiliar faces.

The simple fact that I was able to get some perfect scores in scientifically credible tests of face recognition surely shows that I do not have a fault in my face recognition brain “hardware”. I wouldn’t expect a delusional syndrome to be associated with a very high level of ability.

Out of curiousity I did a face memory test that I found at the website of the BBC. I do not know anything about who created this test, but it can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/ I got a perfect score for face recognition, a score of 91% for temporal memory associated with face memory (average score 68%) and a low number of false-positive identifications. I think the fact that I scored very low (one, caused by a misunderstanding of the question) for false-positive identifications shows that my identification of faces in general isn’t influenced by some hyperfamiliarity, misidentification or delusion disorder. I don’t have a general problem with seeing unfamiliar faces as familiar.

There is one area of cognition in which I do possibly have an abnormal sensation of false familiarity. You could call it “dialogue déjà vu”. It is associated with things that I write or say to other people. I might write a note or tell a story to someone else, and immediately after I might feel that it is too familiar, and I wonder whether I have already told that person in the past. The result is that I never feel completely confident about judging if I’ve already had a conversation or informed someone about something, and I annoy family sometimes by telling the same story twice.

A visual disturbance or vision defect

There are some interesting and exotic types of visual disturbances, but they do not adequately explain the strange phenomenon, because it only happens when I see the face of one particular person under very specific conditions. No visual disturbance or defect in vision could be this selective. I have had glasses for short-sightedness since I was a teen, but I only really need to wear them for driving at night. Small print is getting harder to read as I age, and my colour vision at night isn’t perfect, but I regard my vision as pretty normal for my age. As a synaesthete who experiences visual manifestations of synaesthesia as appearing in my mind’s eye, and not projected into space around me, I am well aware of the difference between things seen through my eyes and things seen within, in my mind, memory or imagination. Jean’s face is seen in my mind’s eye – her face is not a defective image originating from my eye.

How blind could I be if I am able to get perfect scores on tests of face recognition ability?

Hallucination

Here are definitions of “hallucination” from three different sources:

Famous neurologist, author and prosopagnosic Oliver Sacks quoted from his Feb 2009 TED talk about hallucinations:

“They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to be from the outside, and [seem] to mimic perception.”

Clinical Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist Dominic Ffytche in a 2004 clinical guide to visual hallucination and illusion disorders, on the difference between visual images and hallucinations:

Visual images appear in the mind’s eye and are under some degree of volitional control, as opposed to hallucinations and illusions which are externally located, unpredictable and outside volition (in the sense that one cannot choose to make a hallucination of, say, a face turn into that of a chair).”

 Wikipedia article titled “Hallucination”

A hallucination, in the broadest sense of the word, is a perception in the absence of a stimulus. In a stricter sense, hallucinations are defined as perceptions in a conscious and awake state in the absence of external stimuli which have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space.”

The Strange Phenomenon does not fall under the definition of hallucination for two reasons – because it is not percieved or located externally, it is in the mind’s eye, and it does not happen in the absence of a stimulus, the stimulus is the visual perception of John’s face as seen under very specific conditions. This is not a conventional stimulus, it is a synaesthesia-type stimulus.

Psychosis

I do not know what psychosis or insanity are like, as I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my life to never have had such experiences, but I’m sure that such disorders of the mind would not manifest with the great precision, order and rarity of the strange phenomenon. I do not live a disordered life. I have no demerit points on my driver’s licence.

Apparently “It is well established that schizophrenia is associated with difficulties recognising facial expressions of emotion.” (abstract of Tomlinson et al 2006). I have done a test of identifying facial expressions of emotion, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, and I got a score of 33 out of 36, which indicates that I am “…very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.” So I guess that means it is highly unlikely that I have schizoprenia.

Recreational drug effects

The same comments apply as those for psychosis. I do not regularly take any prescription, alternative medicine or illicit drugs, except caffeine and the odd aspirin. I rarely drink alcohol. I do not get any effect like the strange phenomenon from any drug or alcohol. Synaesthetes don’t need drugs!

Epilepsy (including reflex epilepsy)

I do not have this diagnosis. There is no shaking or loss of consciousness associated with the strange phenomenon.

Migraine Aura

Headaches are not associated with the strange phenomenon. I sometimes get super-acute senses with a headache, but nothing associated with “visions”, visual disturbance or face recognition.

Illness, fever, sleep deprivation, fatigue, delirium

Not applicable. The strange phenomenon has been happening over a very long period of time.

Religious or supernatural “vision”

I’ve been an atheist rationalist for most of my life. This type of thing doesn’t happen to me. God doesn’t care about me, and the feeling is mutual.

 

References and recommended reading

Ffytche, DominicVisual Hallucination and Illusion Disorders: A Clinical Guide.ACNR. VOLUME 4 NUMBER 2 MAY/JUNE 2004. p. 16-18.http://www.acnr.co.uk/pdfs/volume4issue2/v4i2reviewart3.pdf

Jäncke L, Beeli G, Eulig C, Hänggi J. The neuroanatomy of grapheme-color synesthesia.Eur J Neuroscience. 2009 Mar;29(6):1287-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19302164

Lambert, Craig Facial pheenoms. Harvard Magazine. September-October 2009. http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/09/facial-pheenoms

Mendez, MF, Cherrier, MM Agnosia for scenes in topographagnosia. Neuropsychologia.2003;41(10):1387-95. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12757910

Rouw, Romke and Scholte, H. Steven Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia.Nature Neuroscience. Volume 10 Number 6 June 2007. http://www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/systems-plasticity/jc/potential-papers/rouw_2007.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

Sacks, Oliver Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds. (lecture given Feb 2009) TED. http://www.ted.com/talks/oliver_sacks_what_hallucination_reveals_about_our_minds.html

Sacks, Oliver A neurologists’ notebook: face-blind.New Yorker. August 30th 2010. p. 36-?. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_sacks

Sacks, Oliver The mind’s eye. Picador, 2010. (chapter in this book titled “Face-Blind” p.82-110 is a longer version of the New Yorker article above)

Tomlinson, Eleanor K., Jones, Christopher A., Johnston, Robert A., Meaden, Alan, and Wink, Brian Facial emotion recognition from moving and static point-light images in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research. July 2006. Volume 85 Issue 1 p.96-105. http://www.schres-journal.com/article/S0920-9964(06)00098-3/abstract

Vuilleumier, Patrik, Mohr, Christine,  Valenza, Nathalie, Wetzel, Corinne and Landis, Theodor Hyperfamiliarity for unknown faces after left lateral temporooccipital venous infarction: a double dissociation with prosopagnosia. Brain (2003) 126 (4): 889-907. doi: 10.1093/brain/awg086 http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/126/4/889.full

Weiss, Peter H. and Fink, Gereon R. Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex. Brain (2009) 132 (1): 65-70. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn304 First published online: November 21, 2008. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/132/1/65.full

Wikipedia contributors Delusional misidentification syndrome. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Delusional_misidentification_syndrome&oldid=364074060

Wikipedia contributors Face perception. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Face_perception&oldid=397226066

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform face area. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_face_area&oldid=378670842

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_gyrus&oldid=400014320

Wikipedia contributors Hallucination. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hallucination&oldid=405603431

Wikipedia contributors Prosopagnosia.Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Prosopagnosia&oldid=400314172

 

Face recognition tests

MIT’s Face to Face Online Study http://facetoface.mit.edu/

“Test My Memory” from Faceblind.org Including “Online Cambridge Face Memory Test” and “Famous Faces” http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/

“Test My Brain” Including “Face Recognition, Emotion Perception, and Personality” and “Can you name that face?” and “Beauty and the eye of the beholder” http://www.testmybrain.org/

BBC Science Face Memory Test  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/