Tag Archives: Face Memory

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

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

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

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

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


Radio stories from the US from last year about prosopagnosia and superrecognizers



Artistic talent and super-recognition?

I’ve had my nose in books, as I do, and I’ve read that some great artists had very “vivid” visual memory, which would presumably be a different thing to creativity. Names such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Michelangelo have been cited. So this made me wonder whether I have or once had a level of artistic talent to match my excellent visual memory for faces. I’m not a visual artist. I don’t do visual art as a hobby even. I do enjoy taking photos, but nothing technical or fancy. I do enjoy creating things. I enjoy working with colour. I love going to visual arts events, as you can see from my blog. But I don’t think anyone would identify me as an artist. As a child, I think perhaps people would have. Children are encouraged to express themselves in visual art, and I obliged, as did most kids, and I also enjoyed art enough to do it in my own time at home. I did art as a year 12 subject and enjoyed it but didn’t take it hugely seriously. Perhaps being myopic but never identified as such during my school years limited my ability to draw. Perhaps my ability or interest in art is attributable to my synaesthesia, independent of my face memory ability.

Unlike so many aspects of my childhood, I remember,  in striking detail and vividness, creating art as a young child.  I remember the colours and the names of colours in a large watercolour set given to me as a young child. I remember drawing the intricate wrinkles of my own hand with the other hand at home. I remember the colours of my pencils in grade 1, and the colours of the little dyed wooden shapes we were given to learn about numbers. I remember being laughed at in grade 1 when I showed the class a painting I did at home using perspective. I remember thinking at the time that my classmates were idiots. I remember the simple joy of looking at things, even tiny things or objects of no particular importance to most people. I remember being fascinated and entranced by the structures and colours of found objects such as bird feathers and sea shells. I remember discovering that beach sand is made up of grains that can have striking and vastly different colours: dark brown, bright orange, magenta, white, transparent like glass. As a young lady I got decent marks in art in year 12 and I think my art reflected an ability or a willingness to simply draw what I saw, rather than reproducing some abstract idea of what I thought a tree or a vase should look like. My art teacher said I had ability but failed to develop it, and I think that probably sums the story of my artistic talent.

Are you a super-recogniser? Are you also an artist? Are you a super who is utterly lacking in artistic ability? What do you think? What do you know?

Interesting letter from last year re acquired prosopagnosia and the uncanny valley

Editor’s pick: Excluded from the uncanny valley
From Bob Cockshott

New Scientist. Issue 3100. November 19th 2016. p.60.


The experience described in the letter seems to suggest that there is more to face recognition than simple memory or faces, or could it be that there are aspects of the perception of faces in particular that make them especially memorable? Faces are easy to personify because they are usually found on people. Perhaps it is the ability to detect the person behind the face that has become amiss in the letter’s author following his stroke, and maybe this ability feeds into face memory? Such a relationship would explain the author’s inability to notice the uncanny valley, and it would also explain why a personifying synaesthete like myself is also a super-recognizer.



I’ve had a read of the interesting article by Laura Spinney that this letter was a comment about, and I think the Perceptual Mismatch Theory of the Uncanny Valley Effect probably offers a more plausible explanation of my a prosopagnosic might be unable to detect the uncanny valley than the competing Category Uncertainty Theory. The article explained the two theories and evidence supporting them. To summarise, the CUT explains the UVE as the result of confusion about what type of thing one is looking at (for example robot or human?), while the PMT explains the UVE as resulting from unease or perceptual confusion when different features or parts of the thing or being viewed have dissimilar levels of human-like appearance (for example the face and skin look realistic but the eyes do not move like human eyes). I think the case of a prosopagnosic not detecting the UVE when people with normal face perception do is support for the PMT theory rather than the other because as far as I know, prosopagnosia does not involve inability to classify faces or bodies as human or non-human, while I believe there is evidence supporting the idea that prosopagnosia can be the result of not being able to perceptually integrate the features of the face as a whole that is recognizable as a unique or distinctive mix of many attributes and features. A non-prosopagnosic person should be able to perceive a face or body as a whole made up of parts, and notice if one or more elements has a level of humanity that does not match other parts, as in the PMT, while a prosopagnosic might not. Of course, research is needed to investigate my armchair speculations.

Surprising explanation for why face recognition matures unusually late in human development!

I didn’t expect to be reading this but I can recognize that this discovery seems to explain why face recognition is human cognitive ability that hits its peak surprisingly late in human development, and I’m now wondering how this fits into my theories about the relationship between my super-recognition and my synaesthesia, and that includes wondering how this discovery fits with my immune hypothesis of synaesthesia (which is all about pruning rather than proliferation), and of course I’m wondering how this fits in with what is known about super-recognizers. I guess I should just calm down and read the full text.

Coghlan, Andy Brain’s face recognition area grows much bigger as we get older. New Scientist. January 5th 2017.

Jesse Gomez, Michael A. Barnett, Vaidehi Natu, Aviv Mezer, Nicola Palomero-Gallagher, Kevin S. Weiner, Katrin Amunts, Karl Zilles, Kalanit Grill-Spector Microstructural proliferation in human cortex is coupled with the development of face processing. Science. January 6th 2017.



Prosopagnosia report on Sunday Night on Australian commercial TV this weekend

Preview at link below. Apparently a face perception researcher from Western Australia will be featured in the report, as well as Australian celebrity prosopagnosic, pop science book author and science popularizer Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. This sounds good, but at the same time, this is pretty-much tabloid TV so I have limited expectations for this report. The promo looks sensationalist and misleading, with the use of the inaccurate term “face blindness” rather than prosopagnosia, along with misleading illustration of the concept with blanked-out faces in the promo, making it look as though prosopagnosia is a perceptual problem rather than a visual memory problem. I think it should be called face memory deficit disorder or something similar. I’ll be watching with interest anyway.


Recent articles about supers, prosopagnosia, policing and face recognition research

Keefe, Patrick Radden The detectives who never forget a face. New Yorker. August 22nd 2016. Print edition title: Total Recall.


I was glad to read in this substantial and interesting article that face identification was not the only evidence used to convict criminals. And the last couple of sentences in this piece are too true!


Montagne, Renee ‘New Yorker’: The Detectives Who Never Forget A Face. NPR. August 17th 2016.



Memory is fallible, but then again, there’s super-recognizers

It appears that super-recognizers (people with very good face recognition ability) are mentioned in the new book The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw, but I cannot find a preview of that bit of text. I’d be interested in reading what Shaw wrote about supers, because I believe that we are very good evidence against the argument that this book, and some other pop psychology books have offered, that human memory is unreliable and open to interference. I’ve noticed that writing by researchers and authors who offer arguments against the reliability of human memory and also those who offer arguments against the idea of natural or inborn talent tend to ignore or gloss over the many things that science already knows about face recognition, face memory and super-recognizers.

I’m happy to admit that people who perform amazing feats of semantic memory such as remembering huge lists of random facts or meaningless digits using new or ancient memory techniques have trained their own memories with many hours of practice, but super-recognizers are very different to those people. We do not knowingly or deliberately train ourselves and we do not consciously use tricks or techniques. Maybe we self-train and invent strategies in an implicit manner, but it is also true that super-recognition does seem to run in families, so there seems to be an important genetic contribution to the elite ability or talent, just as there is clearly a genetic component to developmental prospagnosia (very poor face recognition ability).

Face memory researchers have been investigating the phenomenon of super-recognition since it was first described in 2009, and there seems to be ample evidence that supers have very long-lasting, adaptable, and reliable memory of the faces of other humans. We can remember faces across many decades and across changes in facial appearance by forces such as ageing. I believe I am very good at spotting facial family resemblance and facial phenotypes across gender and age. Super-recognizers can also display very accurate face recognition after being briefly shown images of only faces (no hair etc) of a large group of faces of same gender and similar age, some of them very degraded images. This accuracy requires being able to avoid false positives and false negatives. There’s no denying that supers are bloody good at faces. There’s also no denying that some other people are very poor at face memory, so authors of these pop psychology books that denigrate human memory are able to state with a vague air of truth that human memory for faces is fallible. But such a statement ignores what we know about supers, and this is why I have issues with the common practice of psychology researchers of roputinely discarding data from outliers in their studies. If any of that discarded data is from outlier study participants that did incredible well in tests of face recognition or memory, then those participants could be supers and their data tells an important story about human memory and human face recognition.

I think supers are interesting examples of a type of human memory that stands out from other types of human memory as reliable, long-lasting, easily or unconsciously enmcoded and accurate, so one should wonder, why is the face memory of supers so great? My bet is that this niche example of human memory has two characteristics that give it special power: it is disributed across a broad network of neurons throughout the brain (and this is why it might be found along-side synaesthesia), and it is also a type of visual memory, which I can only assume is a very ancient and well-evolved type of human memory that predates stuff like writing and language, that happens in areas of the brain that work amazingly and unconsciously because they evloved well before there ever were humans. I cannot imagine how genuine face memory could ever be interfered with by suggestion or manipulation, because the tricks that some memory researchers have used to fool around with the memories of study participants work on a conscious level communicated by verbal means. Genuine face memory is implicit and visual. It is safe from such nonsense.

The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw:



But is it really Gina?

I’m well aware that weight loss, ageing and remodelled or drawn-on eyebrows can mess up our natural face recognition abilities, but even though, I’m not 100% convinced the lady in the photos is really the Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart. I feel that the lady in the photo has quite a different personality than Rinehart, kinder but perhaps not as canny.

If this lady is the real Gina, I’m sure she’s had work done on her face, and in my opinion, her unique personality can no longer be seen in her face. I hate watching the fascinating faces of famous women all morph into that homogenous face of the older woman who has had her face done over.

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart shows off amazing weight loss. Daily Telegraph. July 1 2016.



Is the “voice artist” Andrew MacRae the same bloke as the “fake tradie”?

Same face, do you think? I don’t, and my opinion should count for something as I score in tests in the super-recognizer range. At first glance I thought the man shown in the vision of the political advertisement that Australia is currently heaping ridicule upon and the Andrew MacRae shown in a photo on Twitter who has been identified as the bloke in the ad were two different people, and after having a careful look at many different aspects of the appearance of the faces and ears and hairline, I’m even more sure that these are two different people, in appearance.

I’d say the bloke in the silly ad looks older than the man in the photo at the Twitter account of Andrew MacRae, but appearance is probably irrelevant anyway, because I think the ad has been dubbed. The voice is of a man trying to sound like a working-class person from England. The credits at the end of the ad read “Spoken by A. MacRae” so this A. MacRae need not look anything like the dude pictured in the ad, who could well be an actor. It is anyone’s guess what this A. MacRae looks like. The voice artist denies it is him. Maybe this is true. There must be heaps of men with the name “A. MacRae” in Australia.