Tag Archives: Radio Shows

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.


Story on super-recognizers on Australian radio with link to test

This story with an interview of Australian researcher Dr David White was broadcast last year. I’m not actively trawling for items about super-recognition to post about here, so I only just came across it by chance.

Readers of this blog might be interested in the download linked to from the RN web page for the story, which is a difficult face matching test. I’ll give you a tip and advise to only look at the faces as you go and record your own answers as you go, and check them later.  I got only five out of eight correct.

Mackenzie, Michael The secret powers of the super-recognisers. RN Afternoons. September 2nd 2015.



Radio story about facial recognition technology and policing on Radio National

Facial recognition, drones and advances in policing. Future Tense. Radio National. August 30th 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/facial-recognition2c-drones-and-advances-in-policing/6720746


Radio show about Glenda Parkin living with dementia in suburb of Perth, Western Australia

Below are the details of a recent and very interesting radio interview on Perth public radio with Glenda and Bronte Parkin and Alzheimers WA CEO Rhonda Parker, focusing on Glenda’s experiences as a person who has a form of dementia that goes by a number of names including Benson’s syndrome, posterior cortical atrophy and PCA. This is not the first time that Glenda has shared her story with the media; she previously shared her story with Perth’s daily newspaper, the West Australian, in 2011 and she has recently been interviewed for the Community Newspaper Group.

I have unusual reasons to be grateful that Glenda has shared her story with the mass media. I happened upon her story in a copy of the West while I was enjoying coffee and one of those wonderfully greasy Sausage and Egg McMuffins in a McDonald’s restaurant in 2011, after dropping someone off to a selective school that offers students places based on high ability in the area of literacy and languages. I became intrigued by the fact that the particular type of dementia described in the article appeared to be a mirror-image of the pattern of intellectual gifts that appear to run in our family, associated with synaesthesia, a harmless, genetic, developmental and memory-enhancing condition that is caused by increased connectivity in the structure of the white matter of the brain. I wondered whether there could be an undiscovered developmental basis of Benson’s syndrome that works like the opposite of synesthesia, or could it be caused by some mature-age dysregulation of some chemical that regulates growth in the parts of the brain that seem to be hyper-developed in our family, and attacked, over-pruned or somehow damaged in Benson’s. I wrote about my ideas in this blog soon after. In 2012 my thinking on this theme took an important and exciting leap ahead when I happened across a brief article in New Scientist about research by Dr Beth Stevens on microglia, complement, synaptic pruning and elements of the immune system playing a central role in the development of the brain. I figured that one or maybe more of the complement chemicals could be the chemical that regulates growth or pruning in the parts of the brain that I had written about and attempted to identify in my 2011 blog post. I wrote a brief outline of these ideas at this blog in 2012 in an article that was archived by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine in 2012. In lat 2013 I got a big surprise when I saw my idea linking the immune system with synaesthesia as the main idea of a research paper published in a peer-reviewed neuroscience journal, and all without my permission! That’s another story….

I am sure that many people listening to this radio interview would be fascinated with or even skeptical of Glenda’s account of being able to see but not perceive letters on the cover of a book. Her eyesight is not the problem, the problem lies in the visual processing areas of her brain and because of this a lady who in her impressive career has been an author of books can no longer read text or interpret symbols. Seeing is as much done in the brain as it is done in the eye and optic nerves, and a person who has no apparent problem with their eyes can lose visual perception as the result of dementia or injury or stroke.

“Simple things can be very frustrating” – Glenda and Bronte Parkin on dementia. Mornings with Geoff Hutchison. 720 ABC Perth.

Jarvis, Lucy Still making a contribution: retired educators share experience of living with dementia. Community Newspapers. 2015

Hiatt, Bethany Penrhos principal’s hardest battle.  West Australian. January 3, 2011. http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/mp/8588194/glenda-parkin/

Postscript March 10th 2015

The West Weekend liftout of the West Australian of February 14-15 2015 has a feature story about West Australians livng with dementia on pages 10-13. he story of Glenda and Bronte Parkin is included in that article and the content makes it clear that although Glenda Parkin has a diagnosis of Benson’s syndrome which has had a negative impact on her ability to recognize symbols, writing and objects, she can still somehow navigate her way in her neighbourhood. I find this interesting as some people who have prosopagnosia, which is an impairment in face memory, also have a similar impairment in visual memory of scenes or landscapes, and thus have serious problems with navigating their way through streets and neighbourhoods. I had thought that Benson’s syndrome, a type of dementia, and prosopagnosia, a developmental disability and also sometimes acquired from brain injury, must be in many ways similar in their manifestations, as they both feature disability in face recognition, but it appears that it is not safe to make assumptions and maybe each case of these two conditions should be considered unique. I do not recall reading about Glenda Parkin’s ability to recognize faces, so maybe I should assume it is still normal, along with her ability to recognize street-scapes and scenes.

Yeoman, William Open minds. West Weekend. p. 10-13 West Australian. February 14-15 2015.


Story about Oxford Uni researcher developing computer facial recognition of rare diseases on ABC radio

I just discovered this story from the Science Show on ABC Radio National from earlier this month about researcher Christoffer Nellåker. It sounds a lot to me like the kind of research that researchers in Perth, Western Australia have been busy with in the Perth Face-Space Project.

I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again; I’m bemused that so much effort and research is continuing to be put into very sophisticated efforts to create systems for recognizing genetic disorders and diseases in facial appearances, involving sophisticated computer algorithms and photography, to do a job that any super-recognizer could be trained to do with I expect little time and effort. In fact I expect that super-recognizers and people with average levels of face recognition ability naturally have unconsciously-used skills at detecting facial dysmorphology. Who couldn’t pick a case of Down’s syndrome in a crowd, regardless of age or gender? And Treacher Collins is hard to miss, and easy enough to name once you know what it is. I get the point that some of the diseases that can be detected in the face are exceedingly rare, and therefore even a medical specialist would have little or nothing in the way of familiarity with the typical appearance linked to the disease, but I would think it is also true that for any medical case a short-list of diseases will be identified during the diagnostic process, and for each of those diseases, regardless of rarity, there should be some kind of photographic record that can be accessed and studied, and compared against the appearance of the patient. Whichever way you look at it, this job needn’t be rocket science, but as is so often the case, people feel more comfortable in placing their faith in the performance computer system than the skill of a person.

Williams, Robyn Identifying rare diseases from facial images. Science Show. Radio National ABC. December 6th 2014. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/identifying-rare-diseases-from-facial-images/5947924

Saw, Samantha Defining normal. InkWire. April 17, 2014. http://inkwirenews.com.au/2014/04/17/defining-normal/

Synaesthesia on Radio National

Synaesthesia festival at MONABooks and Arts Daily. Radio National. August 15th 2014.

Brian Ritchie, Violent Femmes bassist and co-artisitic director of Synaesthesia, the music festival at MONA interviewed by Michael Cathcart this morning.

The Music Show. Radio National. 16 August 2014.

Tomorrow Andrew Ford will be talking with the co-artistic director of the Synaesthesia+ weekend arts festival at MONA Brian Ritchie and composer Matthew Hindson. MONA stands for the Museum of Old and New Art and MONA is in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Recognizing feet and toes

Faces are special in many ways but they certainly aren’t the only body parts that are distinctive and can be individually visually remembered and recognized. Ear recognition has helped to solve at least a couple of famous crime mysteries. Hands can also be memorable and fingers exist in a variety of shapes. Hands and feet can be distinctive and subtle deformities are common. Even the humble toe can be a big deal to some people, and foot recognition is not limited to real feet because statues also need to stand on something.

Feet can also be misrecognized as something else. Is it a super-recognizer thing or does everyone get this sometime? You wake up, you stick your foot in the air out of the sheets and the blankets and there it is and you can’t help thinking “That is one horribly deformed hand” all the while consciously knowing it is just your more-or-less normal foot, but at the same time, you can see plain as day it’s anatomical heritage as a thing that once gripped more than plodded. Weird.

Balsamo, Annelise Toes. 360documentaries. Radio National. July 27th 2014. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/toes/5617412



Nothing simple about dyspraxia

A case of dyspraxia with possible prosopagnosia and significant issues with fine motor skills such as using zips and buttons and handwriting, but Victoria Biggs was also a precocious reader and an academically very high achiever as an adult. Fascinating! This case is evidence against my idea that reading, face memory and fine motor skills should cluster at similar levels of ability; high in my case and low in people who have Benson’s syndrome. But I think it is interesting that in Ms Biggs’ case she is at the extremes of levels of ability in all three. In the radio show other issues mentioned include finding one’s way through streets (suggestive of topographical disorientation or DTD), poor ability to plan including planning motor tasks, difficulty reading facial expressions and as a result difficulty reading social situations, and also displaying odd facial expressions. I’m amazed that the term “autism” didn’t come up once in this story, because there seems to be so much in Ms Biggs’ story that overlaps with countless accounts of autism or Asperger syndrome, not that I think autism would be an appropriate label. I don’t. I’d love to know whether Ms Biggs is a left-hander.

Victoria Biggs is the author of Caged in Chaos—A Dyspraxic’s Guide to Breaking Free.

Living with dyspraxia. presenter Amanda Smith

The Body Sphere. ABC Radio National.

Thursday 27 March 2014



And another story on 60 Minutes about a major personal mystery which was solved by visual recognition and visual memory

Memories of the scenery of a long-ago journey, Google Earth, a very old photograph of a young boy and face recognition – these are the elements that found the solution to an impossible quest. Saroo Brierley’s amazing story of finding a lost mother within the incomprehensibly huge population and landmass of India is a demonstration of the incredible power and potential of the use of images as data in contemporary computer technology and the natural visual processing and visual memory capabilities of the human brain.

Lost and Found. 60 Minutes (Australia). June 21st 2013. http://sixtyminutes.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8678261

Saroo was also a guest on Breakfast on ABC’s Radio National on June 25th 2013, interviewed with her usual skill and intelligence by Fran Kelly. Saroo is promoting his autobiography titled A Long Way Home.

Long Way Home: An extraordinary story. Breakfast. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/long-way-home-an-extraordinary-story/4777562

Time-blind, face-blind, smell-impaired, touch-disabled, dyslexic – there’s an amazing variety of disabilities of perception

It goes to show how common synaesthesia is, when a host of a radio show episode about super-recognition that I have referred to previously at this blog just happens to be a synaesthete. I know this because she was on the radio yesterday morning promoting her latest pop psychology book, which looks like it will be an interesting read. The BBC broadcaster, author and psychologist Claudia Hammond experiences the days of the week as having their own colours and insists that Monday is a pillar-box red, an assertion which to my mind does not seem odd but simply incorrect. Sure enough, the letter M is red (but certainly not pillar-box red) but surely it is plain to anyone that Mondays are white? Hammond and the cheery radio show host Natasha Mitchell also discussed other varieties of synaesthesia: time-space synaesthesia and mental number lines. Hammond’s new book is about the perception of time and it looks like it will include discussion of disability in perceiving time, and will also probably cover time-space synaesthesia.

I’ve had a look on the internet for more info about Hammond’s new book titled Time Warped, and while reading an excerpt of the book at Amazon I’ve found yet another obscure and highly specialized type of disability of perception, an inability to sense the passing of time, a condition which appears to be so obscure that it still has no name. Hammond gives a fascinating description of Eleanor, who has a deficit in sensing the passing of time that goes way beyond poor time management skills, and also has dyslexia, probably not coincidentally.

In this blog which is primarily about exploring possible links between synaesthesia and high ability in face perception and also an exploration of the opposite condition of prosopagnosia or face-blindness, I have discovered that prosopagnosia is by no means the only highly specialized disability of perception. Prosopagnosia is only one of a range of visual agnosias, which is a sub-set of the agnosias, which are a huge range of brain-based diabilities (not associated with memory loss) in recognizing specific things such as people, voices, shapes, smells, time, faces, colours, classes of objects, images of objects, pain, speech, text, body language, intonation, etc. Prosopagnosia appears to be often associated with another agnosia which is a disability in establishing visual memories of scenes, including things like streetscapes and buildings, and it seems possible that it could be linked with other better-known disabilities such as dyslexia. Each case is different, and prosopagnosia and other agnosias can be caused by genetics or damage in the brain, so one should not make sweeping generalizations. There appears to be no standard term or definition of the issue with place memory, with a variety of terms in use. I guess most people would be aware of the sensory and perception disabilities of blindness, deafness, paralysis and dyslexia, but there is also a huge range of other specific disabilities and disorders of perception and understanding, some affecting taste, smell, balance, mathematical and number sense, touch, music and tone perception. Many of these can be naturally-occuring or the result of brain injury. New Scientist magazine reported a while ago that a deficit in the sense of touch appears to be genetically linked with deafness. Scientists are only now beginning to establish knowledge about the nature of these disabilities and possible relationships between them. On top of this bewildering range of agnosias and disabilities are sensory disorders and visual disturbances that can be asociated with mental illness or are similar to mental illness. And on top of that are sensory-cognitive experiences that are simply odd or unusual but not disordered or a deficit. Synaesthesia fits into this category, of which there are more types than any sensible person would claim to know.

I find these things endlessly fascinating because it gives an insight into the significant fact that there can be many important differences between the way that apparently normal, intelligent people percieve and understand what appear to be simple sensory inputs from the world around us. The more I study this subject, the more I understand that there is nothing simple about perception and the understanding of sensory inputs. This kind of brain-work is hugely complex and it is no wonder that many areas of the brain are involved in this kind of work, and that sensory processing is very much involved in thinking in general. It is impossible to guess how many different ways that the person sitting next to you on the train might differ from you in perception and sensing, and it isn’t only about disability. For many of the agnosias and diabilities of perception and sensing there are conditions that are opposites or give rise to superior abilities that are like opposites. Does the old bloke across the way see violet mauve in his mind’s eye when he hears the train driver sound her horn, because the horn is at a pitch that his mind links with this colour, in an interaction between his perfect pitch and his coloured sound synesthesia? Does the super-recognizer in the carriage feel a tingle of familiarity from looking at two of the faces in the carriage? Is the super-taster still recovering from the second-rate coffee that he paid too much for at a fancy cafe? Is one passenger watching the screen display of info about which station the train is at like a hawk, instead of using her spare time to catch up on some reading, because she was born without any sense of time passing and can’t remotely judge the duration of her planned train journey?

Time warped: changing your perception of time. Life Matters. Radio National. July 2 2012. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/claudia-hammond/4100994