Tag Archives: Kevin Mitchell

Dr Kevin Mitchell explains how genetics works with learning in the development of synaesthesia

My blog has two main themes, and one of them is exploring the relationship between super-recognition and synaesthesia. This theme was the main point of the very first posting in this blog, a description of an unusual experience of mine, which opened up a wonderful journey of exploring undiscovered relationships between interesting concepts in neuroscience, psychology and immunology. In my blog I have also asserted that there’s a reason why both synaesthesia and special abilities in reading and literacy-based skills seem to run in my family tree.

If you were wondering how the brain-based characteristics of super-recognition, synaesthesia, precocious reading and superior ability in reading and writing might be connected, I recommend that you have a read of this blog posting from Dr Kevin Mitchell, a researcher in developmental neurogenetics based in Ireland.

Mitchell, Kevin Schema formation in synaesthesia. Wiring the Brain. (blog) May 10th 2016.

http://www.wiringthebrain.com/2016/05/schema-formation-in-synaesthesia.html

 

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Kevin Mitchell has a blog

I’ve just discovered that Dr Kevin Mitchell from Trinity College in Dublin has a blog and also a lab website. If you asked me to cite the synaesthesia researchers whose work most interests me, for sure Dr Mitchell and also Dr Julia Simner from the University of Edinburgh would be on that list. If you’ve found stuff that I’ve written here about synaesthesia interesting, I think there’s a fair chance that you’d also find Dr Mitchell’s blog of interest.

Wiring the Brain

http://wiringthebrain.blogspot.com/

Developmental Neurogenetics – Dr Kevin Mitchell

http://www.gen.tcd.ie/mitchell/

 

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/

Prevalence rates of some interesting neurological conditions and disorders

Number form synaesthesia   ~12% (Ward, Sagiv & Butterworth 2009)

Dyslexia   5-10% English-speakers (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Dyscalculia   5-6% (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Congenital amusia (tone deafness)   4% (Mitchell Jan 2011) (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Day of the week -> colour synaesthesia   2.8% (Banissy et al 2009)

Prosopagnosia   1-2% (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Congenital prosopagnosia 2.5% (Mitchell Jan 2100) (This figure is inconsistent with the above figure as people with congenital prosopagnosia should be a sub-set of all people who have prosopagnosia)

Mirror-touch synaesthesia   1.6% (Banissy et al 2009)

Grapheme -> colour synaesthesia   1.4% (Banissy et al 2009)

ASD including autism   ~0.6% (Wikipedia)

So this means that, if the disorders besides autism listed above do not overlap in the people they affect, possibly almost a quarter of the population either can’t read, can’t do maths, can’t comprehend music normally, or can’t recognize faces adequately, while diagnosable autism is thought to only be found in less than a percent of people. So why so much hysteria and research funding about autism and so little funding for research into all the other issues?

The total number of synaesthetes in the population cannot be calculated by simply adding up the different types of synaesthesia listed above, because we know that individual synaesthetes often have a number of different types. Regardless, it is clear that synaesthetes make up a sizeable proportion of the population, and synaesthesia isn’t rare at all. So why is it that most teachers that I have spoken to have never heard of synaesthesia, a neurological condition (not disorder) that can directly affect learning (positively and on occassion negatively) and can affect the student’s sensory experience in the classroom?

References

Banissy, Michael J, Kadosh, Roi Cohen, Maus, Gerrit W, Walsh, Vincent, Ward, Jamie Prevalence, characteristics and a neurocognitive model of mirror-touch synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. (2009) 198:261–272. Published online: 3 May 2009. DOI 10.1007/s00221-009-1810-9 http://www.springerlink.com/content/26mh37152110617x/fulltext.pdf

Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-tone

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

Ward, Jamie, Sagiv, Noam and Butterworth, Brian The impact of visuo-spatial number forms on simple arithmetic. Cortex. Volume 45 Issue 10 Pages 1261-1265 (November 2009). http://www.cortexjournal.net/article/S0010-9452(09)00213-5/abstract

New journal paper appears to contrast prosopagnosia with synaesthesia

I’d love to read this new journal paper. It is by the same author from an Irish university who wrote a recent article in Scientific American magazine that I recently mentioned in this blog. Synesthesia (a familial developmental neurological condition) is contrasted with familial developmental disorders such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, prosopagnosia, color agnosia and amusia.

Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.

Mitchell KJ.

Current Opinion in Genetics and Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print]

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568?dopt=Abstract

Link between face recognition and synaesthesia becoming obvious – interesting new article about tone-deafness and prosopagnosia in Scientific American magazine

This interesting recent article explains the many similarities between tone-deafness and face-blindness, and how both conditions can be caused by “structural disconnection” rather than damage to the specific parts of the brain that “do” face recognition or musical perception. The distinction between the developmental and congenital forms of these conditions are explained.

You don’t need to be a genius to see that the “structural disconnection” discussed in this article could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, but just in case that isn’t completely obvious, synaesthesia is mentioned at the very end of the article, in the notes about the author of this article, who is a scientist at Trinity College in Ireland who studies “the genes involved in wiring the brain and their possible involvement in psychiatric disorders and perceptual conditions, including synaesthesia.” Indeed!

A word of caution – I don’t think there is anything in this article that says that prosopagnosics are more likely to be tone-deaf, or vice versa. Although it would seem a sensible assumption that a group of traits should be found together: good face recognition should be found with intact or great or maybe even excellent ability to consciously comprehend musical notes (perfect pitch or absolute pitch), should be found with synaesthesia, but this is not always the case. Apparently there are synaesthetes who are also very poor at face recognition, and the synaesthete author Vladimir Nabokov has been reported by Oliver Sacks to have possibly had “a profound amusia” (Sacks 2007, 2008 p. 109-110), based on a passage that Nabokov wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. I think amusia is a fancy word for tone-deafness. In the book Musicophilia Oliver Sacks describes a number of different types of amusia, and interestingly, this prosopangnosic author also describes in his book some episodes of  amusia that he experienced which were a part of the aura of his  migraine headaches. There are so many connections here that it’s almost like looking at a plate of spaghetti!

Are people who have perfect pitch better than average at face recognition? Are super-recognizers synaesthetes? Is perfect pitch unusually common in synaesthetes? Are the opposite deficits associated with each other? Get to work, researchers!

Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-tone

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

Sacks, Oliver Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain. Revised and expanded edition. Picador, 2007, 2008.

Tranel, D. Damasio, A. R. Knowledge without awareness: an autonomic index of facial recognition by prosopagnosics. Science. 1985 Jun 21;228(4706):1453-4. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/228/4706/1453.abstract  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4012303

 

Postscript 2013 – I’ve had comments from at least one person who is apparently a definite and high-profile super-recognizer to the effect that she is not a synaesthete, so that’s a strike against the idea that supers are synaesthetes. Regardless, I reserve the right to point out that some researchers have found that some study subjects who claim to not have synaesthesia have returned test results that suggest that they are, so it appears to be possible to be a synaesthete and not know it.