Tag Archives: Robyn Williams

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.





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/