Tag Archives: QI

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.


Super-recognizer jobs, or why you should be testing prospective employees for visual memory

[This post last updated July 2016]

While I’m sure there are very few jobs in which being a superrecognizer alone is sufficient qualification, it is also clear that good or elite face memory/recognition ability is a very important work skill in many roles. A normal level of face recognition ability is probably required for most jobs, unless particular measures are taken to accommodate employees who can’t recognize faces, such as name badges etc. I’m surprised that police forces generally don’t test for face recognition ability in their recruitment screening tests or their training regimes, and I think my dismay might be shared by face recognition and prosopagnosia researchers. Criminals generally don’t wear name badges, and they aren’t very accommodating people. It is probably true that many or most prosopagnosics use alternative methods to memorize, identify or recognize people, such as face-matching strategies in certain situations or memorizing gaits, hairstyles or voices of people. Even if face-blind people are able to use some effective methods to identify others, we can’t escape from the fact that face recognition is widely used as a means of identifying individuals and there is a general assumption that everyone can do it, so it is important for police forces and other organizations to know whether they have members who can’t memorize and identify faces.

Superior face memory ability must surely be a valuable tool for those working in policing, law enforcement, security and intelligence roles. If we make the assumption that excellent face recognition ability is linked with superiority in visually identifying various other types of items within specified classes, such as identifying different makes of cars, or planes or different species of birds or plant varieties, etc, (and I believe there is some scientific evidence to support this assumption), then the super-recognizer possibly has a real advantage in a very diverse range of occupations. When I was watching the TV series Secrets of the Super-brands which was broadcast a few months ago in Australia, I recall seeing a scientist, (I’ve forgotten her name), saying that when people look at the logos and labels of well-known consumer products, the parts of the brain that activate are also some of the parts of the brain that do face recognition, so I think we can also assume that superrecognition probably gives an advantage in visually identifying consumer products, which could be useful in retailing and nightfill work (and if you think this sounds like an easy task in visual discrimination, go look at the range of near-identical products in the light globe or dishwasher detergent sections of a large supermarket). A super-recognizer with generally superior ability in visual recognition might have an advantage in areas of medicine in which visual recognition is a core task, and that would be a number of areas of medicine. Visual face, object and pattern recognition and memory are applicable to a huge range of occupations. Here are some ideas:

Police work – Specialist super-recognizers are currently working in law enforcement in the UK, but apparently not in Australia or anywhere else in the world. The necessity of excellent face recognition in police work is obvious. Countless press articles can be found through the internet about the use of an elite super-recognizer team by the Metropolitan Police in London, including the live surveillence of huge crowds at the 2013 Notting Hill Carnival and huge numbers of identifications and convictions from identification of images of offenders in CCTV image recordings from the 2011 England riots.

Police Misconduct Investigator – one of the most famous super-recognizers works in this niche occupation (see this article)

CCTV image interpretation – An obvious application for super-recognition, but I do not know of any use of super-recognizers in this area of work besides a UK police force.

Detective work – Duh! The necessity of excellent face recognition is obvious.

Border protestion, customs, passport officers, TSA agents – see below and also see suggestions made by super-recognizer researcher Brad Duchaine in an August 2013 article in Science News.

Security work – The necessity of excellent face recognition is obvious. In The Psychologist in October 2013 three super-recognition researchers explained how super-recognizers can out-perform facial recognition technology in difficult conditions, and they identified passport officers, and surveillence and security roles as possible applications for super-recognizer ability.

Intelligence agencies (spooks, ASIO) – The necessity of excellent face recognition is obvious.

Consultant – If you can’t find a super-recognizer from within your business or organization, hire one for tasks that require this elite natural ability.

Paparazzi (photographers who take unauthorized photos of celebrities in their everyday life to supply photos to the print media)  and photojournalism – Exceptional face recognition ability would probably be an essential requirement for this job, because I guess these people need to be able to identify celebrities cold in out-of-context and private situations. Celebrities often use face-covering strategies to avoid the paparazzi, such as wearing sunglasses and hats or none of their typical make-up, sometimes even disguises and fake facial hair.

Journalism / photojournalism– I guess that the journalist’s requirement for exceptional face memory would be similar to that of the paparazzi. Journalists need to identify, investigate and meet people and not get people off-side by failing to recognize them.

Management and supervisory roles – The necessity of at least good face recognition is obvious.

Electoral Officer – I’m guessing excellent face recognition ability might help identify anyone trying to vote more than once in the same place. I have no idea how often this happens in our time or whether there are easier ways to rig a ballot. I do know that a coercive form of this type of electoral fraud was a common enough in the USA in the 19th century to be given a name (cooping).

Exam Supervisor or Exam Invigilator – at universities or wherever important written examinations are conducted. These days important exams can require candidates to present identification cards or passes with a photograph on it, presumably as a measure to prevent or deter people from sitting an exam for someone else fraudulently. Of course, this type of misconduct can only be detected if the exam invigilators carefully and ably check the face of every person who wishes to sit the exam against their ID card photo, a task clearly requiring excellent face recognition or face matching ability, especially considering the fact that universities these days have international student bodies of a mixture of races, and the cross-race effect can make it more difficult to recognize faces of a race that is not one’s own. The idea of checking exam candidates’ photo-ID is very nice idea, but I think rarely put into action.

Teaching and Education? – At least good face recognition skills required for this type of job. Should a school headmaster be able to recognize and know all students in the school on sight? A teacher certainly needs to be able to positively identify all students in their class.

Sales, PR, marketing?

Customer service roles – including library work / librarian, public service, retail and general business roles dealing with public or customers or prospective customers

Debt collectors?

Radiologist – expert and specialized visual recognition skills essential

Sonographer – see above

Dermatologist – visually recognizing symptoms of countless different skin diseases requires developed, expert visual recognition ability

Medical Geneticist – recognizing characteristic faces and phenotypes as symptoms of countless rare genetic and inborn syndromes. The Perth Face-Space Project is apparently based on the idea of faces as phenotypes of genetic disorders. In my opinion, this area of skill very much overlaps with the natural ability of the super-recognizer.

Second-hand motor vehicle dealer – knowing vehicle models and detailed product knowledge are probably visual recognition skills related to FR

Botanist – visually recognizing and discriminating between countless different but often near-indistinguishable plant species

Zoologist – as above

Entomologist – as above

Ecologist – as above

Biologist – as above

Natural Environment Rehabilitation – Quickly and accurately visually identifying native plants and animals and also weeds and pest species are essential skills for such a role and I bet a super would have an advantage.

Environmental Conservation – as above

Gardening – Being able to tell weeds from legitimate plants is an essential skill, as is being able to accurately identify and know about a huge range of garden plants, trees and native species, and the primary means of identification is visual. You’d want to know the difference between a gladioli and a Watsonia weed, or the subtle difference between the self-seeding South African plant Pelargonium capitatum which is an environmental pest in coastal areas of WA, and the garden cultivar “Attar of Roses” which was derived from this species.

Retailing – Dealing with people and products. Super-recognizer Moira Jones wrote about the value of her elite face recognition in a past role in retail, both for superior customer service and identifying suspects in a police investigation of a robbery.

Night-fill in supermarkets  and retail – Visual memory for product packaging and logos, a generally excellent eye and memory for details and excellent spatial memory are essential

Proof-reading – Does superior face memory correlate with superior memory for the appearance of correctly-spelled words? I believe it does in some supers.

Chicken sexing – An elite and trained level of visual recognition is the core requirement of this job, which unfortunately is now mostly obsolete due to genetic engineering of obvious sexual dimorphism into chicken breeds

Gem sorting, diamond sorting – I don’t know much at all about this job, but I imagine that like chicken sexing it might be a highly specialized job requiring trained visual perception, and could either be well-paid or redundant due to automation.

Prospecting – A very sharp eye is obviously a core requirement. Prospecting is a lifestyle more than a job, and what a lifestyle! An interesting assortment of people do this for a living or for a supplementary income and pastime, and some of them are living in remote locations to hide from people who are searching for them. I have tried my hand at the sieve and slurry method of prospecting for gemstones, and I think I was pretty good at it right from the start. This method or something like it is also used to find alluvial gold.

My warmest best wishes to all of my readers who are currently looking for work (or sapphires or gold nuggets).

References and further reading and viewing

This is a link to a YouTube video of the episode of the always-entertaining TV quiz/trivia show QI in which poultry sexing as a job and highly specialized skill was discussed, toward the end of the episode: http://youtu.be/_LsYdsYprfY

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-getfile_getPDF/thepsychologist/1013davi.pdf  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.)

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.)