Tag Archives: Super-recognizers

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.


Supers are the cover story in this month’s Reader’s Digest Australia



Radio stories from the US from last year about prosopagnosia and superrecognizers



Artistic talent and super-recognition?

I’ve had my nose in books, as I do, and I’ve read that some great artists had very “vivid” visual memory, which would presumably be a different thing to creativity. Names such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Michelangelo have been cited. So this made me wonder whether I have or once had a level of artistic talent to match my excellent visual memory for faces. I’m not a visual artist. I don’t do visual art as a hobby even. I do enjoy taking photos, but nothing technical or fancy. I do enjoy creating things. I enjoy working with colour. I love going to visual arts events, as you can see from my blog. But I don’t think anyone would identify me as an artist. As a child, I think perhaps people would have. Children are encouraged to express themselves in visual art, and I obliged, as did most kids, and I also enjoyed art enough to do it in my own time at home. I did art as a year 12 subject and enjoyed it but didn’t take it hugely seriously. Perhaps being myopic but never identified as such during my school years limited my ability to draw. Perhaps my ability or interest in art is attributable to my synaesthesia, independent of my face memory ability.

Unlike so many aspects of my childhood, I remember,  in striking detail and vividness, creating art as a young child.  I remember the colours and the names of colours in a large watercolour set given to me as a young child. I remember drawing the intricate wrinkles of my own hand with the other hand at home. I remember the colours of my pencils in grade 1, and the colours of the little dyed wooden shapes we were given to learn about numbers. I remember being laughed at in grade 1 when I showed the class a painting I did at home using perspective. I remember thinking at the time that my classmates were idiots. I remember the simple joy of looking at things, even tiny things or objects of no particular importance to most people. I remember being fascinated and entranced by the structures and colours of found objects such as bird feathers and sea shells. I remember discovering that beach sand is made up of grains that can have striking and vastly different colours: dark brown, bright orange, magenta, white, transparent like glass. As a young lady I got decent marks in art in year 12 and I think my art reflected an ability or a willingness to simply draw what I saw, rather than reproducing some abstract idea of what I thought a tree or a vase should look like. My art teacher said I had ability but failed to develop it, and I think that probably sums the story of my artistic talent.

Are you a super-recogniser? Are you also an artist? Are you a super who is utterly lacking in artistic ability? What do you think? What do you know?

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.



Ever noticed how the faces of couples often look a lot alike?

I notice it all the time, and perhaps this has something to do with being a super-recognizer. It seems to be especially common among couples that include a murderer or a politician. You should consider assortative mating or narcissism before you assume incest.





Interesting questions and serious concerns

Revell, Timothy Concerns as face recognition tech used to ‘identify’ criminals. New Scientist. December 1st 2016.


Garvie, Clare, Bedoya, Alvaro and Frankle, Jonathan The perpetual line-up: unregulated police face recognition in America. Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law. OCTOBER 18th 2016.


Is there really a criminal face? I don’t think the research discussed in the New Scientist article settles the debate by any means, but at least the controversial idea is opened up for investigation. If there is one my guess is that it is a look that coincides with the Australian face (every race and nation has a distinctive averaged facial type, apparently). European colonisation of Australia began as a penal colony and thus a good part of the white genetics of Australians arrived in this country through people identified as criminals. My best guess is that the crim face has a large straight nose, thin lips and puffy, small eyes. I’d guess this unattractive face could in itself be a social and economic disadvantage, or could be symptomatic of a phenotype that includes some degree of intellectual impairment. I think if there is a crim face it might have little to do with personality but a lot to do with disadvantage, but this is all speculation.

I think it is worth noting that claims made in the print version of this article about supposed advantages of AI over humans in face recognition skills such as identifying age, gender, ethnicity and tiredness by looking at faces presumably only apply to humans of average face recognition ability who maybe are not as exhaustively trained in these skills as the AI systems have been. One cannot compare human ability with AI in face recognition until appropriately trained super-recognizers (representing the top end of human ability) have been pitted against machines. I’m guessing this hasn’t been done.

Perhaps the most important part of this article is right at the end; “…the majority of US police departments using face recognition do little to ensure that the software is accurate.” That certainly is not good enough. Human super-recognizers have abilities that have been proven in scientific testing and also in practice in policing in the UK. Why do so many people persist in the assumption that machines must be better than humans in visual processing, in the face of an abundance of evidence? The link in the New Scientist article to the website of the researchers who have criticized the use of face recognition technology in law enforcement in the United States of America is worth a look for sure.

Surprising explanation for why face recognition matures unusually late in human development!

I didn’t expect to be reading this but I can recognize that this discovery seems to explain why face recognition is human cognitive ability that hits its peak surprisingly late in human development, and I’m now wondering how this fits into my theories about the relationship between my super-recognition and my synaesthesia, and that includes wondering how this discovery fits with my immune hypothesis of synaesthesia (which is all about pruning rather than proliferation), and of course I’m wondering how this fits in with what is known about super-recognizers. I guess I should just calm down and read the full text.

Coghlan, Andy Brain’s face recognition area grows much bigger as we get older. New Scientist. January 5th 2017.

Jesse Gomez, Michael A. Barnett, Vaidehi Natu, Aviv Mezer, Nicola Palomero-Gallagher, Kevin S. Weiner, Katrin Amunts, Karl Zilles, Kalanit Grill-Spector Microstructural proliferation in human cortex is coupled with the development of face processing. Science. January 6th 2017.



Wouldn’t say it’s a positive or a negative experience

The experience of being a super-recognizer is often interesting. I wouldn’t say it is necessarily a positive experience or a negative experience. Like most human abilities it adds a layer of complexity to my life. There are occasionally some strange moments, like the time when I was chatting about our favourite hobby with a kind and humble foreign lady who I’d never met before and probably wont ever meet again, who had almost but not quite the same dentition as my late mother, who has been gone for something like four decades. And just the other day I was striding out of Kmart with an armful of unnecessary items and in the corner of my eye spotted a doppelganger of my late father. When I turned my head for a second glance the old buzzard wriggled uncomfortably in just the same way that Dad used to. We are all nothing more than twigs of the great tree of humanity. Please be kind and please be good in 2017.

This bloke is the real thing

I’m amazed by two aspects of this interesting news story about an international competition run by the highly original author Douglas Coupland to find the world’s closest lookalike to the late great epileptic painter Vincent van Gogh. I’m amazed at how closely the British actor Daniel Baker in the photo shown visually resembles van Gogh in his face but also in so many other distinctive visible features. I can’t help wondering how closely the British man is like the legendary artist in his personality, talents and behaviour, if at all, and I’m also left wondering how far back the two might be related (all humans are related if you go back far enough), but all that is of course none of my business. This super-recognizer gives her seal of approval to the idea that Baker looks a heck of a lot like van Gogh. I am truly impressed, because I usually find celebrity lookalikes and lookalike competitions to be laughable due to the glaring differences between the faces of the “lookalike” and the real celebrity.

The other thing that I’m amazed about is the fact that all those other pictured men thought themselves as possible winners of the competition, when so many don’t really have faces or heads that look much like self-portraits of the artist (which we can assume were good likenesses). Being a van Gogh double requires more than having short ginger hair and beard and being a white man of similar age, with an intense look on your face. The face is the thing, and the shape of the head, the shape of the hairline and also the shape of the natural beardline, even the shape of the outline and the inner lines and the size of your ears (which may number one or two). I think it is interesting that it appears that the winner of the competition was not self-selected. It shows how little judgement some people apparently have into how visually close in resemblance one person is to another, which I guess is the result in a spectrum of person visual recognition ability.

I’m going to be really annoyed if in his acting career Baker never gets the chance to play van Gogh. It would be such a waste!

Van Gogh lookalike competition won by Dorset man. BBC News. November 25th 2016.