Tag Archives: Karl Kruszelnicki

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.



More of my amazing ideas! Beware!

In the past at this blog I’ve shared a large collection of ideas in the areas of neuroscience and psychology that I’ve managed to think up all by myself, independently but often with inspiration from my own experiences, situations that I’ve observed or my reading of science magazines or scientific literature, or a combination of the above. I’ve not exhaustively searched to see if I was the first person ever to publish all of these ideas, but I’m sure that some of them at least were first published by me at this blog.

I’d now below like to add to my collection of ideas, but this time not limiting myself to the subject areas of this blog. Please note that this page and all pages at this blog are permanently archived, and if you choose to copy my words or plagiarize any of my ideas, if I was the first to publish that idea or ideas, I will find out and I will make you sorry. Very sorry. 

So, here’s some ideas, some serious, some not so:

Chocolate goods producers and major supermarkets can prevent groups of racist redneck lunatics from accusing them of pandering to non-Christian minorities by failing to label traditional Easter and Christmas goods explicitly as Easter and Christmas goods, by bringing out a range of colourful foil-wrapped chocolate Jesus figures and delicious Flake-bar crucifixes, maybe even entire chocolate nativity scenes and twelve apostles sets, all clearly labelled “Easter” and Christmas”.

As a form of living sculpture or sensory play activity for children, grow one of those mulberry trees that has an abundance of black fruit and grows very large, and underneath the canopy cover the ground in white-coloured quartz rocks that have been tumbled a bit to wear off the sharp edges, prevented from sinking into the dirt with white weedmat or some kind of durable pale-coloured matting that will allow for drainage. In the spring the ground should become a purply, pinky fruity-smelling mess, a celebration of the staining power of mulberries.

Are prosopagnosics over-represented among scientists, science graduates or among popularizers of science? (Consider Dr Karl, science journalist Robyn Williams, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks…) If so, is this because they develop a skepticism about unconscious, intuitive ways of thinking that give instant insights, as typified by the process of normal face recognition, as a natural consequence of experiencing this type of thinking less often than most people do? Is this a motivation to seek and understand and advocate for the more deliberate, conscious and explicit ways of thinking and reasoning that make up the methods, processes and statistical techniques of science and critical thinking?

Is the Availability Heuristic partly to blame for common and inaccurate ideas about the nature and numbers of refugees coming to Australia, when news TV shows constantly depict refugees as crowds arriving on boats rather than modest numbers of people (relative to foreigners arriving with working visas) arriving by plane? I believe there is evidence that the visual depiction of information is more influential than written or abstract information, and news TV may be unwittingly generating misleading beliefs about refugees when they choose exciting and distinctive visuals of swarms of exotic people on crowded boats to make their news stories about refugees more attention-grabbing.

Is the Trolley Problem thought experiment relevant to the phenomenon of parents refusing to vaccinate their children? The Trolley Problem shows us that a minority of people express irrational reluctance to take an action that will kill a person in order to save the lives of a greater number of people. Obvious parallels can be pointed out between this situation and that of a parent who fears some aspect of vaccinations refusing to “harm” their child regardless of the benefits. If there something especially emotionally repellent about directly causing harm even if the aim is to promote a less salient and immediate good effect, surely the Trolley Problem might be a tool that can aid in understanding the phenomenon of vaccination refusal.

Can the normal mean score in a test be double-checked after it has been used in published studies by gathering up all of the data of the scores of control group or normal study participants who have been given the test, in a systematic search of the literature, and then pool this data to calculate an average score? Is this a more objective method of determining a normal score for a published test than merely relying on a norm researched by the team that originally researched the test, or a way of replicating this result?

Are super-recognizers super at facial recognition because they are faster or better at converting visual memories of seen but unfamiliar faces into memories of familiar faces? (In some ways the enhanced memory for familiar faces displayed by ordinary people resembles super-recognizers’ memory for faces only seen transiently or once). Are supers over-familiar in a facial kind of way? Do supers pay closer attention to people’s faces or in some other way have an advantage in the encoding stage of memory-formation? Does the process of converting an unfamiliar face memory into a familiar face memory involve an attribution of personality traits to faces (which may or may not be based on reasonable assumptions), in the manner of ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia?

Are geographically-isolated cities such as Perth characterized by mediocrity in professional standards in those cities, as a consequence of a lack of “new blood” and the opportunity for the formation of social networks within professions that are too stable and collegiate, or frankly corrupt networks within or between professions, preventing genuine professional peer-review or criticism of members of these professions? Some professions that I’d start with include dentistry, medical, legal, law enforcement, public service, education, journalism/press, academia, librarianship. I’ve found clear data-based evidence for this effect in relation to one profession, but some of the most important professions are hard to rate because of a lack of openly-available systematic measurement of professional standards and outcomes. If I ever had the means to study this question and found an effect, I’d call it “The Perth Problem”, but the effect should be globally applicable. Apparently in Darwin, the residents have such a low opinion of a hospital there that they have a saying:”If you feel a pain, book a plane.”

And finally, dammit, for a while I thought I was the first to think of the brilliant idea in the article linked to below. Apparently not, but I like that in the age of skyscrapers, drones and Google Earth, we can take this hybrid of gardening and graffiti to new levels entirely. http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/09/28/161947553/the-best-college-prank-of-the-1790s-with-bats-poop-grass

More ideas to follow………………

October 16th 2017

Could the underlying cause of chronic hoarding behaviour be undiagnosed hyperostosis frontalis interna (AKA Morgagni-Stewart-Morel syndrome)? There are reasons to believe that at least one form of hoarding is caused by damage or dysfunction to parts of the brain in the frontal lobes that perform decision-making, and it seems obvious that damage or impairment of this part of the brain could be the result of HFI, which is an abnormal thickening of the inside of the front of the skull. One might argue that HFI is typically found in old ladies, while this might not be the case for hoarding, so the two aren’t linked. To that I would argue that HFI is thought to possibly be substantially underdiagnosed, and is typically only identified as an incidental finding when a patient is given an x-ray of their skull for some unrelated reason, and HFI is (incorrectly) considered by some doctors to be a benign condition, so no one can say how common HFI really is or what age or gender characteristics the genuine typical case posesses. If hoarders ever are treated by any health professional, I would guess this would only consist of CBT from a psychologist or happy pills from a GP, and I’m sure an x-ray of the skull or other non-trivial forms of medical testing are virtually never a part of investigations of cases of hoarding. HFI is associated with epilepsy (ample reason enough why it should not be considered benign) and possibly this could contribute towards the hoarder’s inability to make decisions about the importance of items (to keep or to toss), due to seizure activity in the frontal lobes altering the emotional state to make everything appear to be important or significant. Apparently a common report in temporal lobe epileptics is of a feeling of insight or significance or ecstasy as an aura or precursor to seizures. What if this kind of sensation was chronically activated? If this was possible, how would that affect behaviour? This also raises the question of a possible link between hoarding and the epilepsy-related personality disorder that was proposed as a psychiatric diagnosis in the 1970s and 1980s, known as Geschwind syndrome or Interictal Behavior Syndrome of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I think this is another possible association worth researching. Obviously, I believe all of the disorders that I’ve mentioned in this paragraph should be the subjects of much more research and interest from the medical and psychological professions.





Leading researchers and prosopagnosics on Australian radio show about the extremes of face memory ability

Malcolm, Lynne What’s in a face? Prosopagnosia. All in the Mind. Radio National. February 19th 2017.



Dean, Diane Prosopagnosia: What it’s like to live with ‘face blindness’. ABC News. February 20th 2017.



There’s a link to the Cambridge Face Memory Test at the webpage for the radio show.

Sad but not surprising that prosopagnosics can be mistakenly perceived as having a personality issue rather than a perception issue.

I’ve got an anecdote that is rather like the opposite of the one shared by Dr Karl in the radio show, in which he came to understand that he had an unusual problem in recognizing fellow-students at university. Just this week I recognized (with no foreknowledge) a student that I once shared a tutorial group with when the student made a very brief appearance as an actor in a television advertisement. Nice! I wish him the best of luck in his acting career. He was working in a series of health promotion ads that consistently feature better acting than that often seen on the TV shows.

In case you are wondering, the music used in the radio show were two hits of the 70’s; that famous tune by Grace Jones and at the end the big hit by Roberta Flack.

The search for an effective intervention for prosopagnosia continues, but at least the knowledge of what is going on must be some help to people who face this challenge.



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.


Wow, this is interesting

Scientists Find Vessels That Connect Immune System And Brain. June 3, 2015 | by Stephen Luntz. IFL Science.


Structural and functional features of central nervous system lymphatic vessels

Antoine Louveau, Igor Smirnov, Timothy J. Keyes, Jacob D. Eccles, Sherin J. Rouhani, J. David Peske, Noel C. Derecki, David Castle, James W. Mandell, Kevin S. Lee, Tajie H. Harris & Jonathan Kipnis
Nature (2015) doi:10.1038/nature14432
Received 30 October 2014 Accepted 20 March 2015 Published online 01 June 2015


I find this most interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the discovery showing that the human brain has functional lymphatic vessels connecting the brain with the immune system adds to a growing collection of evidence that the immune system plays important roles within the brain, which is an apparent partial violation of the long-held concept of the “blood-brain barrier” (as was described in a dated and inadequate chapter by Dr Karl in his 2013 pop science book Game of Knowns). In 2012 I was apparently the first person in the world, at this blog, to publish the ideas that high or low levels of the “component” immune chemicals at various points in development could be the cause of conditions of the brain such as developmental synaesthesia and Benson’s syndrome or PCA. My ideas were inspired by the very exciting research in areas such as microglia, complement, synaptic pruning and MHC1 molecules.

Another reason why this new discovery linking the central nervous system with the lymphatic and immune systems by researchers from the University of Virginia is so exciting is the fact that it is an unexpected discovery, as one might have thought that human anatomy would have already been thoroughly researched and discovered through the history of medical science to date, but then again, surprising new discoveries in human anatomy have not been unknown in recent years, with discoveries of new features in the human eye, knee and clitoris, the rediscovery last year of a major white matter tract (the vertical occipital fasciculus) at the rear of the brain that could play a central role in skills such as reading, and a new shape of neuron discovered in mouse brains. These new discoveries are exciting and also rather unsettling; exciting because it appears that important new discoveries in human neuroscience and anatomy are still possible, and unsettling because genuinely surprising new discoveries in science seem to indicate that science is not a steady accumulation of knowledge and a path of upward progress, as many believe. This may or may not be surprising to you, depending on which theory in the philosophy of science you favour. I think the discoveries of the VOF and the collection of discoveries about the roles and anatomy of the immune system in the human brain could be interpreted as evidence showing how incorrect ideas in science can become widely-accepted and widely-taught and could also have delayed the progress of new discoveries in neuroscience. How much further might we have come by now in our understanding of the human brain and mind if not for the popularity of the idea that the human brain is quarantined from the immune system? Which other influential ideas about the human brain are holding us back from a clearer understanding of the brain’s workings and diseases?

The two most exciting science magazine articles of 2013 (far as I’m concerned)

The most exciting blogging moment of 2013 for me was probably when I discovered that my idea about linking synaesthesia with the immune system, and idea which I published in the winter of 2012 at the blog, had been recycled without my permission in a paper that was published in October 2013 in a journal that is apparently peer reviewed and all that fancy stuff. Of course, the big excitement of 2012 was thinking of this idea along with a suite of more important and related ideas, and the excitement continued this year as I read more about the work of researchers such as Carla Shatz, Ben Barres, Beth Stevens and Marie-Eve Tremblay who are busy pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge about the complex relationship between elements of the immune system and elements of the brain. It’s a wide open and potentially very important new area of scientific discovery, and below are the details of some  items that you can read if you wish to find out what the excitement is about. Have an exciting new year.

Miller, Kenneth Brain benders. Discover. October 2013. p. 30-37.  http://discovermagazine.com/2013/oct/12-brain-benders#.UsL_B_QW18E  (disregard the guff in this article about autism and schizophrenia)

Costandi, Moheb The mind minders. New Scientist. Issue 2938 October 12th 2013. p. 45-47.  http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029381.000-the-mind-minders-meet-our-brains-maintenance-workers.html

One thing in the world of popular science writing that hasn’t been so inspiring and exciting in 2013 is the famous Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s latest pop science book on the 2013 Christmas gift book market, titled Game of Knowns. The book has a chapter in it about the blood-brain barrier. The concept of a blood-brain barrier is an established and accepted idea in medicine, but I think that the new area of research about the varied and important roles in brain development and brain maintenance of cells and chemicals that were previously thought to be limited to playing roles in the immune system are very important exceptions to the old notion that the brain is normally quarantined from the immune system by the blood-brain barrier. I’ve had a quick look at Dr Karl’s new book, and it appears to me that the chapter about the blood-brain barrier fails to mention the role of these immune cells and chemicals in the brain, things such as microglia, MHC1 and complement system proteins. It appears to me that the chapter in Dr Karl’s book is dated and seriously incomplete, and missing some exciting material. Even for a populariser of science, I expect more.

If I could justify the time……

If I had more time I would write a post about what I think is wrong with Dr Karl’s new book, which will probably sell like hot cakes this Christmas, but has one chapter which is seriously incomplete and out of date. If I could justify spending the time writing this blog for no financial return I might also write lengthy posts explaining more of my scientific ideas about synaesthesia, cognition and memory. But sadly, this blog has no funding and no sponsor and not much of a future. But you will always be able to read about Paris Hilton and Kim Karwhatshername on the internet.

I’ve just found out about Brad Pitt and prosopagnosia

A CNN news article about Brad Pitt and his suspicions about prosopagnosia came out on Friday. I’ve only just found out about Brad Pitt and face recognition issues. I’m amazed. There is speculation about how he visually recognizes his partner actor Angelina Jolie. Perhaps Mr Pitt just consistently approaches the most beautiful woman in the room. I guess you can do that when you look as gorgeous as Mr Pitt.

Note the photos and notes in the CNN article about many other famous prosopagnosics, including Australia’s beloved Dr Karl and Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden. A disability in face memory isn’t the only difficulty in life that Crown Princess Victoria has had to contend with. She is also a dyslexic and won a battle against anorexia in the 1990s. According to the CNN article, Brad Pitt has been invited to go to Carnegie Mellon University to see Prof Marlene Behrmann and be tested for face-blindness or prosopagnosia and to have his brain imaged. That’s his decision to make. Prof Behrmann does appear to be an expert in the area of face recognition. I would cite Dr Brad Duchaine as another world-class expert.

I don’t see anything wrong with Prof Behrmann’s offer, but a celebrity shouldn’t feel that he has to make a public show of getting diagnosed with something. I guess Mr Pitt has seen the positive impact that his partner’s recent sharing of medical information has made. Perhaps he feels that he would like to also share and go public about a personal issue, and have a professor check out his lobes and gyri and white matter. Perhaps Mr Pitt feels that his apparent difficulty with face memory has alienated so many people that he must now seek and offer a public explanation of why he hasn’t recognized people. Being diagnosed as a prosopagnosic in a consultation that is reported in press releases would appear to be a solution. Finding out whether or not you are a super-recognizer of faces or a prosopagnosic can also be done privately and at no cost. The short version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test used to be freely available on the internet for anyone to complete in the privacy of their own home, with access to their own score. In my opinion, no one should have to volunteer to have their brain scanned or be studied as a single case or be studied as one of many research subjects just to get access to scientifically sound face memory testing and one’s own test results. I also don’t think anyone should have to pay a consultation fee to see someone with letters after their name just to get access to testing. Good face memory tests can be and have been offered freely over the internet. Governments subsidize public access to important health-related information resources on the internet, and I don’t see why face recognition tests should be any different.

I can’t believe that I’ve just written a post about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and a beautiful princess who once had an eating disorder. It just isn’t the kind of thing that I do.

CNN Staff Does Brad Pitt suffer from face blindness? CNN May 24, 2013.  http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/23/showbiz/celebrity-news-gossip/brad-pitt-esquire-face-blindness/index.html

Tom Junod A life so large. Esquire. June/July 2013.  http://www.esquire.com/features/brad-pitt-cover-interview-0613

Shilo Rea News Brief: Carnegie Mellon Invites Brad Pitt To Campus For Face Blindness Diagnosis, Research. Carnegie Mellon News. May 23rd 2013.  http://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2013/may/may22_faceblindness.html

Princess Victoria’s face confession. Female First. February 13th 2008.  http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/royal_family/Princess+Victoria-48079.html

Once again, super-recognizers to be found in comments

There are comments from people who claim to have super-recognizer ability at the below-linked article about prosopagnosia at the Australian online magazine for an educated readership The Conversation. One of the super-recognizers is apparently an inherited case with a parent who had the same level of ability.

The Australian Prosopagnosia Register or Australian Prosopagnosia Participant Register was mentioned in the article, which is a register for people who wish to participate in research and also suspect that they are inborn cases of prosopagnosia. This register appears to be maintained by Macquarie University.

The English celebrity Stephen Fry was identified as one of a number of famous prosopagnosics, based in a Tweet that he wrote, claiming to be a “mild” case. This is interesting because there is some indication that Fry also experiences colours for the days of the week which is a type of synaesthesia, and the gay actor has also been diagnosed with one of the milder categories of bipolar, following a bad reaction to some quite severe bullying. I would want to be more certain of all of these diagnoses before speculating about any possible causal link between them.

I should know you: ‘face blindness’ and the problem of identifying others. by Romina Palermo The Conversation. August 16th 2012. https://theconversation.com/i-should-know-you-face-blindness-and-the-problem-of-identifying-others-8884

Australian Prosopagnosia Participant Register  https://www.maccs.mq.edu.au/research/projects/prosopagnosia/register/