Tag Archives: Detail versus context

Australian super-recognizer suffers from social embarrassment after misidentifying stranger as an acquaintance

The amazing thing is that I had earlier seen the acquaitance at the same event, and I hadn’t noticed a difference in hair colour (different hue, same degree of darkness) between the two, possibly because I focus on faces and voices more than hair.

How did this error happen? Well, the stranger was a sibling of the acquaintance, of the same gender, build, age and hairstyle as the acquaintance, and both were attending the same event, and both have quite distinctive faces with a strong family resemblance in the entire face, not just in a couple of features. The family resemblance brings the siblings’ faces closer in similarity of appearance, while the shared distinctiveness of their faces pushes them away from resembling the faces of any randomly-chosen face of an unrelated person of the same race, age and gender. I would even argue that my misidentification was in fact a correct identification of pretty much the same face that happens to be shared by two people rather than the one individual, as is normally the case with faces, rather like the situation in which you meet by chance the twin of a person you know when you weren’t aware that the person you know has a twin. No, the siblings both now known to me are not twins. Yes, other people have made the same mistake in identification.

Is there anything to be learned from this mistake? I guess it shows that at least in my case, super-recognition is not about having a photographic memory or a memory for every single visual detail, but is more to do with detecting similarity, not just in one or a few visible features, but in an entire pattern made up of features, which as a whole can be distinctive, memorable and identifiable. Is super-recognition a superiority in memory for visual patterns?

If you couldn’t see properly, would you be the last one to know?

I think it is fair to say that they average person believes that seeing and vision is all about the eyes. In actual fact, a person could be blind but still possess perfectly functioning eyes. the eyes don’t see. It is the brain, or the person who’s consciousness is produced by their brain, which does the seeing, more specifically, the parts of the brain that are responsible for visual processing. I think they are mostly at the back of the brain.

Vision is the result of the operation of the eyes and also the brain, and neuroscience is more and more becoming aware that there is a great amount of normal and also unhealthy variation among brains. The brains of dyslexics don’t handle reading well. The brains of left-handed people are definitley different to those of most of us, but not in one uniform way. Some people’s brains are damaged or derailed in development even before their untra-uterine development is completed and they are born, because their mother smoked during pregnancy or drank alcohol or had some misfortune such as catching one of the many infectious diseases that can harm a foetus. The genes that we all inherit or mutate can affect they way our brains work in profound ways, including visual processing. Prosopagnosia or face-blindness can be inherited and can run in families.

Your brain is different to my brain in countless ways that have an impact on the way our minds work. I often experience music as a coloured form of entertainment. You probably don’t. I can’t help but remember the faces of people that I meet, even if they are people who play very minor roles in my life and are not expected to be met ever again. Here’s an example. I took one of our kids to the Royal Show recently. One of the attendants at one of the animal pavillions was kind enough to let my child collect an egg that one of the prize-winning special-breed chickens had laid in it’s cage. He was a nice person, but there was nothing particularly memorable or different about his face or appearance, and I never expected to meet him again. Some hours later I involuntarily spotted his face among the teeming crowd of scores of show visitors surging down one of the streets in the showgrounds. As is usual, I consciously avoided looking like I had recognized him, lest I be seen as some kind of stalker weirdo. Is this kind of experience a common one? A rare one? Who could know for sure? One thing that I do know is that it was a complete surprise when on a whim I found the Cambridge Face Memory Test online and did the test and found that I had gotten a perfect score. At the same website for the first time I saw the term “super-recognizer”. What is a super-recognizer, I thought? Could I possibly be a super-recognizer? I’ll Google it!

It appears that I have some kind of visual gift, but I had no idea. People who have the opposite level of ability in face recognition also sometimes have little awareness that they are different from the norm. I recall seeing one of the prosopagnosics who were interviewed on the US version of 60 Minutes saying that before her diagnosis she had thought she was just not good with people. That’s a very vague idea of what the issue is. That is a remarkable lack of insight into what was going on in her life, but of course, I’m not blaming her. If you are looking for examples of visual or sensory processing disabilities that people can have but be unaware of, there are clearer examples to find than prosopagnosia. I’ve read that stroke patients can be unaware of a loss of vision in half of the visual field of one or both eyes (hemianopsia) or can be unaware of a loss of awareness of one side of space (Hemispatial neglect). People who have one form of colour-blindness, Anomalous trichromacy, can be unaware that their visual perception is different. Doctors even have a term for a lack of awareness of disability or deficit; Anosognosia. Psychologists have a term that seems to cover similar ground, plus some; the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In the Dunning-Kruger Effect people who lack skill in some area may mistakenly believe they are skilled or even above average, while people whose skills are excellent may lack the appropriate self-confidence to go with their high ability or expertise, because they mistakenly or unknowingly assume that everyone is operating at their level and they are just average. In my experience, the Dunning-Kruger Effect applies to visual processing ability. I’ve seen people time and time again mis-identify things such as plants, vehicles or animals with confidence, and time and time again, I get told that I’ve got a great eye for detail. Sometimes it seems to me that it is instead the case that I’m inexplicably surrounded by people who are borderline cases of cortical blindness, or are way overdue for an appointment with an optometrist. If you couldn’t see properly, would you be the last one to know?

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