Tag Archives: The Synesthesia Battery

An oldie but a goodie

There’s a back-story to my theory

I can show data dating back to the year 2000 that supports my theory that low levels of complement proteins, which are a part of the human immune system, specifically C3, C4 and most likely C1q, are the biological cause of the development of inherited synaesthesia (at least in some cases). Before I had thought of the idea of a link between the immune system and synaesthesia I had, at the blog, published a theory that synaesthesia is in some way the neurological opposite of a variety of dementia named Benson’s syndrome (aka PCA, posterior cortical atrophy), based on my observations and reading. I had speculated that there could be some “magical chemical” that regulated the brain in some way and that oppositely extreme levels of this magical chemical could be the biological basis of both synaesthesia and Benson’s syndrome. Back in 2012 I read a small article in New Scientist magazine that blew my mind, because it appeared that it gave me some major clues about what that magical chemical could be. The article was about the exciting work of Dr Beth Stevens on microglial pruning in the brain and the immune system’s complement proteins. The term “pruning” was familiar to me from all of my reading about synaesthesia, which is a fun heritable brain-based phenomenon which I share with some of my first-degree relatives, along with specific gifts in literacy skills. The term “complement” in the context of the immune system, and the individual names of complement proteins were also familiar to me.

Being a super-recognizer, I’m pretty good at recognizing patterns, and I recognized that all these elements of information fitted together into an important and original multi-faceted theory. I was so excited that I published a brief outline of my theory at this blog in 2012. In 2013 I was shocked to discover that a prominent synaesthesia researcher and her co-author had published a theoretical journal paper titled “The immune hypothesis of synesthesia” which even included speculation that the “complement system” could be the element of the immune system responsible for the development of synaesthesia. I found no credit given in that paper to me or my blog. As I had published my theory first I believe I should have been fully acknowledged. I never thought that this could have been a case of two separate parties thinking of the same idea independently. I read their paper through and I looked into the educational and research background of both authors and their previous publications and found no study or writing about the immune system and no indication or explanation of why they might have suddenly had their own insight linking synaesthesia with some of the many elements of the incredibly complex immune system that only an immunologist would find interesting. 

This Easter I’d like to pose the question; can Simner and Carmichael offer data dating back to the year 2000 as the basis of their published version of “the immune hypothesis of synesthesia”? I can, and I would be willing to share my data with serious medical researchers.

A while ago I was sorting through some piles of old papers that I had stowed away years ago without sorting through them. These things happen during a busy family life. These piles had been sitting around for years, some of it photocopies of articles from New Scientist magazine that had struck me as interesting but which I hadn’t always had the time to read through properly. I was amused to find that I had stowed away an article from the March 1st 2008 issue titled “Thought control” by Bijal Trivedi. It was all about exciting research by the likes of Carla Shatz, Ben Barres, Simon John, Staffan Cullheim, Eliezer Masliah, Robert Terry and Lisa Boulanger about synapse loss in dementia and the interesting things that elements of the immune system appeared to be doing in the brain, contrary to the received wisdom that there is a thing called the blood-brain barrier that keeps the immune system out of the brain. I’m not sure whether or not I had read the article back then, but I can understand why it had sparked my interest. Back then it wasn’t enough of a spark to give me the idea of a link between the immune system and synaesthesia, because back then I hadn’t even heard of the terms “super-recognizer” or “Benson’s syndrome”, in fact the concept and the term of “super-recognizer” hadn’t yet been published. Back then I had not the slightest inkling that I had better than average ability in face recognition, so I hadn’t started thinking about whether it was more than a coincidence that I was both a synaesthete and a super, and which parts of the brain might be atypical in both. I hadn’t read the human interest story in The West about a Perth citizen who had been diagnosed with Benson’s, and felt curious about how the description of that type of dementia sounded like the opposite of skills that were superior or associated with synaesthesia in myself and kin. I must have forgotten about the content of the 2008 New Scientist article, if I had ever read it at all, because it would have been the ribbon which I could have used to wrap up my package of ideas neatly. Curiosity can be rewarded, even if it takes a couple of coins before the penny drops.

 

Some ideas that I’d like to (explicitly) lay claim to (right now) in 2014

A note of warning – If you are thinking about copying or plagiarizing any of the text, ideas or descriptions in this post or using it in your own work without giving me (C. Wright, author of the blog “Am I a Super-recognizer?”) the proper acknowledgement and citations, then think again. If you do that you will be found out and my objection will be well publicized. If you believe that you published any of these ideas before I did, please let me know the details in a comment on this article. If you want to make reference to this blog post or any of the ideas in it make sure that you state in your work exactly where you first read about these ideas. If you wish to quote any text from this post be sure to cite this post at this blog properly. There are many established citation methods. If you quote or make reference to material in this blog in your work, it would be a common courtesy to let me know about your work (I’m interested!) in a comment on any of the posts in this blog. Thank you.

The idea that Benson’s syndrome or posterior cortical atrophy or PCA, a variety of dementia, is caused or develops in a way that can be seen as the opposite of the synaesthesia linked with exceptional visual memory and literacy skills that runs in my family (this idea has been explored previously in this blog).

The idea that the above cited states develop or are caused in a way that makes them seem like opposites because they both affect the same or similar areas of the brain, but in opposite ways.

The idea that the above described process happens because Benson’s syndrome and our variety of synaesthesia are both mediated by the same or similar natural chemical or cells or biological agent in the brain, one caused by high levels of the mystery substance and the other caused by low levels (a hypothesis that I briefly suggested in January 2011).

The idea that one of the many known or unknown elements of the immune system that impact brain development is the mystery substance referred to above (a hypothesis that I briefly outlined in 2012).

The (implied in above ideas) idea of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia. (This idea was first published by me in 2012 in a blog post archived here, was I believe plagiarized in 2013 here, and was the subject of my plagiarism claim here.)

The idea that one or more of the complement immune chemicals is the  mystery substance referred to above.

The idea that the C3 complement immune chemical  is the  mystery substance referred to above.

The idea that synaesthesia is linked with one or maybe more immune diseases or conditions caused by low levels of complement.

The idea that genes for synaesthesia stay quite common in the gene pool because of some associated cognitive advantage (probably superior memory) that balances out any disadvantages caused by deficiencies in the immune system.

The idea that some or many people unintentionally experience a memory process that operates in a similar way to the method of loci memory technique in their everyday lives, unintentionally forming long-term associations between individual learned concepts and individual visual memories of scenes (I have named this phenomenon Involuntary Method of Loci Memorization or IMLM).

The idea that IMLM operates in such a similar way to synaesthesia that one could argue that it is a type of synaesthesia.

The idea that synaesthetes are more likely to experience IMLM than non-synaesthetes.

The (implied) idea that the method of loci memory technique is similar to or a type of synaesthesia.

The idea that synaesthetes might have a natural advantage in using the method of loci because the method of loci is similar to or is a type of  synaesthesia. This idea that seems likely in light of the case of “S” the Russian memory performer with many types of synaesthesia described by Luria. 

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span.

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span and can thus be used as an indicator of which synaesthetes are synaesthetes due to enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span rather than other possible causes of synaesthesia. Support for this idea comes from the fact that IMLM appears to be a non-developmental variety of synaesthesia that can form new long-term associations in adolescence and adulthood.

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by the unusual possession of levels of synaptic plasticity typical of a young child, during adolescence or adulthood.

The idea that IMLM is caused or enhanced by some characteristic of the immune system that affects the functioning of the brain. Many different elements of the incredibly complex immune system are thought to affect the functioning or development of the brain, and could thus be involved in IMLM, including the complement system, microglia and the MHC class I molecules. Researchers such as Beth Stevens and Carla Shatz have investigated this exciting area of neuroscience. In 2012 I hypothesized at this blog that synaesthesia could be caused by low levels of complement, this idea implying that the immune system is directly involved in synaesthesia (or at least some cases of synaesthesia). I believe these ideas were plagiarized in a paper published in 2013.

The idea that IMLM is similar to the “Proust phenomenon” in that it is very similar to synaesthesia or is a type of synaesthesia and involves episodic or autobiographical memory as a concurrent.

The idea that phonics as a foundational reading skill is similar to or is arguably a type of synaesthesia in that it involves the involuntary association of individual speech sounds with individual printed letters or combinations of letters, as the result of learning in early to mid childhood.

The idea that at least one type of dyslexia is like a deficiency of synaesthesia.

The implied idea that if synaesthesia has as it’s basis hyperconnectivity in the white matter of the brain, dyslexia as an opposite of synaesthesia or a deficiency of synaesthesia is or could be caused by hypoconnectivity in the white matter of the brain (I suspect there might be existing research evidence that supports this idea).

The implied idea that in at least one cluster or grouping of cases synaesthesia is associated with superiority in literacy or reading skill.

The idea that synaesthesia can happen in different regions of the brain, and because of this the experience of various types of synaesthesia can vary in detectable ways because of the influence on the synaesthesia of the varied ways that different areas of the brain operate. This can mean that one synaesthete can experience different types of synaesthesia that operate in very different ways, for example, some types of synaesthesia more rare or spontaneous or intrusive than other types. (I am not completely sure of the originality or the novelty of all of this idea.)

The idea that there is an association between synaesthesia and super-recognition that is not merely coincidental.

The idea that synaesthesia is a type of memory or learning. (Not sure if I’m the first to note this obvious fact).

The idea that synaesthesia concurrents are re-experienced memories, or re-activated “learnings” of concepts, not perceptions. (Not sure if I’m the first to note this obvious fact). In support of this idea I can assert that synaesthesia is like face recognition in that both are visual memory-based phenomena which are subject to the Verbal Overshadowing Effect or something very similar. My assertion that synaesthesia is subject to the verbal overshadowing effect is based on my own observations (outlined elsewhere in this post).

The idea that super-recognizers should or could be trained and employed as expert consultants in the practice of medical genetics.

The idea that medical geneticists and all types of medical specialists need to have a super-recognizer level of face memory or face recognition ability, so that they can intuitively and quickly recognize medical facies.

The idea that there is no clear point of distinction between medical facies or faces associated with genetic syndromes and normal faces.

The idea that super-recognizers could be used to facially identify blood relatives of a person or persons.

The idea that super-recognizers could be used to facially identify the specific ethnicity of a person.

(below ideas added January 28th 2014)

The idea that super-recognition or being a super-recognizer could develop as the result of an unusual level of fascination with the visual appearance of landscapes or scenes, rather than from a fascination with faces, and thus be a side-effect hyper-development of a part of the brain that serves two similar functions.

The idea that super-recognition or being a super-recognizer could, at least  in some cases, develop as the result of a general hyper-development of the visual sense to compensate for problems in the auditory sense during childhood such as temporary deafness, recurrent ear infections, glue ear or poor auditory processing.

(below idea added February 1st 2014)

The idea that lexical-gustatory synaesthesia is an exaggerated form of some kind of evolutionary adaptation in the brain that biologically primes the mind to attend to or react to speech on the subject of food (this idea was discussed at this blog in a post dated January 27th 2011, with more consideration in a later post).

(below ideas added February 6th 2014)

The idea that creativity might be immediately enhanced during and only during the duration of physical or visual-spatial activity because the activity activates areas of the brain associated with movement and in turn these areas activate other areas of the brain including those that give rise to conceptual thinking, and the increased activation makes novel associations between diverse thoughts and concepts more likely, and that this process is like synaesthesia or is a type of synaesthesia, and the types of physical activity that are the most effective inducers of this effect might be highly specific, highly specific in effects, highly varied between individuals and highly idiosyncratic, as is typical of synaesthesia inducers and concurrents. Driving a car can act as an inducer of this effect. (I have gone some way to exploring this idea in past posts.)

The idea that mental flexibility might be immediately enhanced by the above effect, which I will name “movement – thought-flexibility synaesthesia”.

The idea that thinking might be immediately enhanced by the above effect.

The idea that memory might be immediately enhanced by the above effect.

The idea that the above effect is similar to embodied cognition or is a type of embodied cognition.

(below ideas added February 14th  and  February 20th 2014)

The idea that synaesthesia is like the process of face recognition (and vice versa), because they both

– are subject to the verbal overshadowing effect or something similar

– are automatic

– are involuntary

– have a sensory inducer, in face recognition always visual, in synaesthesia I think most frequently visual

– have or can have a concurrent that could be described as a memory, a concept or a personality (I’m comparing face recognition with personification synaesthesias and the synaesthesias that I have described at this blog which have visual memories of scenes as concurrents)

– are or can be visual in both the inducer and concurrent

– typically involve the fusiform gyrus

– involve set pairings of inducers and concurrents (same person’s face seen before then recognized later)

– involve set parings of highly specific inducers and concurrents (I recognize that an employee at my local supermarket has a sister who has just started working there too, as their faces and bodies and hair are near-identical, but for the extra acne and the more receding chin of the new employee. They are very similar in appearance but my discrimination is highly specific, just as I can recognize that the green wall on the lower floor of a public library is close to but not quite the same colour as Tuesday.)

– both can have, but do not always have an actual face as an inducer (we can recognize the faces of celebrities in photos, caricatures and art, even seeing Marilyn Monroe’s face in a pattern of brown coffee cups stuck to the wall at the coffee shop at the art gallery.)

(below idea added February 17th 2014)

“My particular interest in personification is my own theory that personification synaesthesia (as experienced by myself) or something like it gives rise to superiority in face memory (or being a super-recognizer) by naturally making the faces of unknown people more memorable and interesting”

The above is a quote from an article that was published at the blog in October 2013.

(below ideas added February 19th 2014)

The idea that the synaesthesia brain is the result of the developmental influence or shaping from, or the adaptation to, the behavioural phenomenon of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The idea that synaesthesia, intellectual giftedness or high IQ and autism or Asperger syndrome seem to coincide more often than chance because gifted and autistic kids are more likely to experience “flow” and this in turn can influence the developing brain in a way that gives rise to synaesthesia.

(below ideas added February 20th 2014)

The idea that the genuine conscious awareness of synaesthesia is a threshold phenomenon that operates in conflict or competition with conscious thinking, meaning that consciously thinking about synaesthesia can inferfere with the perception of concurrents, and synaesthesia must reach a particular level of intensity before it interrupts the experience of consciousness and becomes itself the subject of conscious awareness. I think that the idea that thinking about synaesthesia can interfere with the perception of synaesthesia might be related to the “verbal overshadowing” effect which has been described and debated about by researchers. In fairness I should point out that Mark C. Price speculated in the recently published (2013) Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia that synaesthesia could be subject to the verbal overshadowing effect. My own ideas were arrived upon independently from Price’s writing or work.  I base the ideas of synaesthesia being a threshold phenomenon which can also be interfered with by conscious thinking on a number of my own observations. In direct contradiction to what I had expected to find, my scores for accuracy for individual letters and numbers in The Synesthesia Battery (a scientifically-validated online test of synaesthesia) were lower for the numbers and letters that have colours that I find beautiful and which I have thought about to some degree, while my best accuracy was for the numbers and letters that have the dull and ugly colours. It seems the less I think about the concurrents the more accurately I can percieve them when they are evoked. I have also noticed that most of the types of synaesthesia that I experience I was not consciously aware of before I started to think about and examine the idea of synaesthesia. I never realised that I had complete stability in the colours I associate with months and days of the week till I tested myself. While I had a dim awareness of colour colouring my thoughts, I’d not realised that this worked like synaesthesia till I went looking for a pattern using simple testing. My fine motor movement-visual memories of scenes synaesthesia evokes concurrents that are so fleetingly and subtly experienced that they just feel like random thoughts, and indeed I now believe it is possible that the random thoughts of many or even all people are in fact synaesthesia of various types. I have also observed that there are some very unsubtle and intrusive types of syn that I experience, and they are typically rarely experienced and are associated with people, emotions, faces, singing voices or music that I find striking or novel as inducers. Because of the circumstances of these examples of synaesthesia, I think some kind of threshold is being breached when these types of synaesthesia are experienced by me.

The idea that one of the established defining criteria for synaesthesia, that it gives rise to perceptions or concurrents which are “consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial)”, is wrong, and specific categories of memories of complex visual images such as faces and scenes, which are processed in the fusiform gyrus, can also be experienced as genuine synaesthesia concurrents. I base this assertion on the fact that I often involuntarily experience synesthesia concurrents of this type, and I have written about such experiences right from the first post in this blog which was published in 2010. I have also named types of synesthesia that have complex visual memories as concurrents: the strange phenomenon, fine motor task – visual place memory synaesthesia, involuntary method of loci memorization, etc. There are also many accounts or scientific observations of synaesthesia with complex visual concurrents in the scientific literature on synaesthesia.

Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year

What follows is a summary of dealings between scientists and myself during the past year, including testing at a university, in my not very successful quest to answer my question “Am I a super-recognizer?”

September 14th 2010 I sent an email to a prominent face perception/prosopagnosia researcher in the US who I will give the name “A”. This is the text that I wrote and sent (unspellchecked):

“For quite a while I’ve been having some unsual experiences that seem to be related to face recognition. Out of curiousity I have done some online face recognition tests, and I was surprised that I got some high and perfect scores. This led me to read with interest the 2009 journal paper about super-recognizers. Some of the experiences reported by these people appear to be similar to my experiences. I would like to have a go at two of the tests used in that study – the Before They Were Famous Test and the Cambridge Face Recognition Test Long Form. Would that be possible? I would be most grateful if you could help. I live in Australia. I’ve already done the short form test.”

September 15th 2010 Sent email to researcher B in the US with same text as the above email.

September 15th 2010 From B a brief and polite reply referring me to another researcher/academic in the US (“C”) who was given a copy of my email.

September 17th 2010 Got brief polite reply from the US researcher C explaining that the test that I wanted to do can’t be done over the internet but testing through a local university might be possible.

September 16th 2010 (dates out of order due to differing time zones?) To C I sent a brief polite reply listing the universities that are local to me.

September 18th 2010 Reply from C who wrote would get back to me. Emailing tests also a possibility.

September 20th 2010 Reply from A apology for delay–busy time at work. Referred me to researcher C.

September 21st 2010 I emailed A to tell A that I was in contact with C who might be able to help.

September 26th 2010 I sent an email to the cognitive science department at the Australian eastern states university for which I filled in two long questionnaires a couple of years ago for synaesthesia researchers. I explained that I thought I might be a “super-recognizer” and I’d like to get access to difficult tests of face recognition if possible, from Perth, and I mentioned that I’m a synaesthete. This email got no reply.

October 9th 2010 Sent an email to an Australian researcher who has published research about prosopagnosia (disability in face recognition) at the above Australian eastern states university. This email got no reply.

October 17th 2010 To C in the US I sent a very brief email “Any luck?” I received no reply.

October 18th 2010 I emailed a face perception researcher D at a WA university explaining that I thought I might be a super-recognizer, would like to access the “Before They Were Famous Test” if possible, had contacted overseas researchers to this end, am a synaesthete who could show results from The Synesthesia Battery, and believed there was a connection between my synaesthesia and my apparently top ability in face recognition.

October 19th 2010 Reply email from D explaining that testing could be done with different tests that they have which should give similar information. I was referred to research assistant E.

October 19th 2010 I sent brief reply to D.

October 20th 2010 Brief reply from D.

October 20th to November 2nd 2011 Seven emails from research assistant (RA), and me replying, to schedule and reschedule a date for me to go to the WA university for testing at a time that suited all.

November 5th 2010 I went to the university and did the testing. I met D and RA. The face recognition tests that I did were both on a computer.

Details of the testing that I did at a WA university on November 5th 2010

As I recall it, I was asked to fill in a consent form (pen and paper), two questionnaires (pen and paper) and to do two computerised tests of face recognition.

One of the questionnaires asked about my exposure to people of a Chinese racial heritage during my life. This was obviously to help interpret scores of one of the tests, in which faces were males of Asian appearance. The other questionnaire was presented as a questionnaire about personality (I think this might have been the title of the questionnaire). Many of the questions seemed familiar. I believe the questionnaire was the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), which I did just out of interest a number of years ago when I found it in an appendix of a pop psychology book which I had read. I don’t recall any mention of autism in the consent form or on the questionnaire itself, or verbally from the research assistant.

One of the tests of face recognition that I did at the university was a version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). The faces were all Caucasian males. I recall that some (maybe all?) of the faces in the test that I did at the university were different faces than those in the online test that I had already done. At the time I assumed that it was an alternative short version of the CFMT, but in hindsight I now wonder if it could possibly have been the long form of the CFMT.

The other face recognition test that I did was apparently a test created at the university. I recall the faces as young male adults of an Asian race, but according to info sent by email from the university this test also had Caucasian faces. I recall they had fairly negative facial expressions (sad, angry) and they were not an attractive bunch. I recall I had to compare faces initially viewed from a front, full-face angle with faces later presented from a profile (90 degrees) angle. After being presented with faces to memorize on the computer I was required to do a visual search task with pen and paper for a specific time period, presumably to prevent me from using any conscious and deliberate method for remembering the faces. I found this test so difficult that I don’t believe that this test reliably engaged the normal process of face recognition. I recall doing this test using conscious strategies such as comparing specific facial features or skin colour, rather than experiencing or not experiencing that sudden natural feeling of familiarity that marks natural face recognition. I wouldn’t be surprised if I scored barely over a chance score. Many different factors could be suggested to explain the difficulty of this test. I have read that people naturally have a bias towards and an expertise in recognizing faces of one’s own race, so this would make the Asian faces trickier for me, as I’ve not been exposed much to Asian faces in my life. I have also read that there is a bias against recognizing unattractive faces. In a journal paper about the CFMT I read that face recognition works best on faces viewed from the front, so identifying faces presented in profile should be challenging. I believe that my own natural advantage in face recognition involves semi-automatically personifying faces, or ascribing personalities to the faces, using the same brain mechanisms that give rise to my ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia. I suspect that the cold expressions, the unfamiliar race and the unattractive forms of the faces could have worked against this personifying process. The thing that I believe did the most to make this test difficult or a non-test was the use of a 90 degree profile angle for face recognition. I think it’s just too big an extrapolation to “know” a face from the profile after viewing it briefly from the front. This is also an unnatural task. Who socialises or chats while staring away at right angles from the person you are supposed to be engaging socially with? According to what I’ve read, there have been tests created by researchers intended as tests of face recognition that didn’t really work as such, and designing such a test isn’t as simple a task as one might think. If the test that I did at the university didn’t work as a face recognition test, I think it would still present an opportunity to discover more about the nature of face recognition, in pondering why it did not work, if this is the case.

I was given a small amount of money to cover my travel costs after the testing, and was thanked by a very nice and polite research assistant. After the testing researcher D and I had a brief chat in an office. We spoke about the influence of ethnic differences in appearance on face recognition testing. The researcher asked about the odd experience that sparked my interest in face recognition. It was difficult to explain, and I couldn’t mention any of the names attached to the faces involved. I spoke a bit about my synaesthesia, but the researcher didn’t seem terrifically interested. I said I was still keen to do the Before They Were Famous test. The researcher said that might be possible.

November 9th 2010 I sent email to RA asking if the test scores of mine were available yet.

November 9th 2010 Email from RA advised that she would be away till Nov. 23rd 2010.

November 9th 2010 I emailed D and asked if my test results were available yet.

November 10th 2010 D replied that RA was on leave and should be able to give results shortly after that date.

November 23rd 2010 Apologetic email from RA advising that results not yet processed but should be available at the end of the week.

November 24rd 2010 Sent email reminding RA that my results from The Synesthesia Battery can be shared electronically if they are interested.

November 26th 2010 Email from RA. Thanked for offer of scores from Synesthesia Battery but not needed at that stage. A summary of two tests that I completed was given. I was advised that my score in the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) was 96%. The RA did not specify whether I had done the long or short version of this test, and I had assumed that I’d done some short version of the test, so I didn’t ask about this. In hindsight it would be nice to know for sure exactly which version of the CFMT I did. I was advised that I scored 96% on this test, with an average score given as 78%. A score of 96% in the short form (72 items) would indicate that the subject is not a super-recognizer, while a score of 96% in the long version (102 items) would confirm that the subject is indeed a super-recognizer, but in my case there is the problem that I’ve already had practice doing the short form of the test. When I got this news I wondered about the score of 96% considering that I had already done the short CFMT twice (inadvertently done a second time as a part of a battery of tests available online) and had scored 100% both times. But the CFMT that I did at the university was not the same version that I did online.

A summary of the face test with male Asian-looking faces that I did at the university was given. The RA explained that the test is new and they did not yet have enough data to know what an average score is, so giving me my score would be meaningless. She advised that “a comment on your results” should be available shortly.

December 2nd 2010 I sent a brief email to RA asking about any news of the cross-race face recognition test.

December 3rd 2010 Reply from RA advising that they were still processing data and would give results as soon as possible, not sure when. I think this was the last contact I’ve had with anyone at this university.

December 4th 2010 My blog “Am I a super-recognizer?” begun with the publication of its first article, a description of The Strange Phenomenon.

December 20th 2010 I sent an email to researcher A with link to my new blog “Am I a super-recognizer?” which at the time mostly consisted of a description of The Strange Phenomenon. A brief correspondence followed in which A suggested a visual disturbance as an explanation, and I argued against that.

I have sent a number of emails to selected researchers in cognitive science/psychology all around the world with a link to my blog shortly after I created it. Some researchers replied with appreciative comments (by email). One of the researchers that I informed about my blog was from the Australian eastern states university that I had sent emails to in Sept-Oct 2010. That researcher left a brief comment at my blog.

To date no researcher that I’ve been in contact with has ever asked about my synaesthesia, or asked about my scores on The Synesthesia Battery or asked for professional access to my online scores (which can be arranged apparently).

I don’t receive feedback or comments about my blog from scientists/academics/researchers any more, but I have received some interesting comments from educated people from various corners of the world about complex types of synaesthesia that we have in common, phenomena that to my knowledge have not previously been described or studied by scientists. Science is much too important to be left to the scientists.

References and further reading

Duchaine, Brad & Nakayama, Ken The Cambridge Face Memory Test: Results for neurologically intact individuals and an investigation of its validity using inverted face stimuli and prosopagnosic participants. Neuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585. http://visionlab.harvard.edu/members/ken/Ken%20papers%20for%20web%20page/137neuropsychologiaDuchaine2006.pdf

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

Take the AQ test. Wired. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html

Wikipedia contributors Autism Spectrum Quotient. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Autism_Spectrum_Quotient&oldid=434143629

Wikipedia contributors Cross-race effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cross-race_effect&oldid=436739510

Costandi, Mo Why do people of other races all look alike? Neurophilosophy Guardian.co.uk August 15th 2011  http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/neurophilosophy/2011/aug/15/people-other-races-look-alike

Wilson, C. E., Brock. J., Burton, A. M., & Palermo, R. (in press). Recognition of own and other-race faces in autism spectrum disorder. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.  http://sites.google.com/site/drjonbrock/publications/recognition-of-own–and-other-race-faces-in-autism-spectrum-disorder

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/

My Brain Put to the Test

In the first post in this blog I have described an interesting thing that I have experienced that is most certainly related to synaesthesia and also face perception. The trouble with my description is that the reality of my experience cannot be verified by any other person, much the same problem that was once incorrectly thought to be a barrier to the scientific investigation of synaesthesia. What we can do is investigate whether there is anything different or even superior about my brain. Many scientific psychological tests are freely available that can be used to this end. Over the years I have done a few tests that are very relevant to the strange phenomenon that I have already described in detail.

A few years ago I found a test that was an appendix at the back of a pop psychology book that I borrowed from a library. That test was the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and apparently it is a test used by university researchers. Out of curiosity I did the test and got a score of 33 out of a possible score of 36. The notes at the end of the test state “If you scored over 30 you are very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.” So I guess I got a good score, but I wasn’t hugely impressed by my effort, as a friend of mine also had a go at that test and she got a better score than mine.

Having an interest in psychology (it was one of the subjects that I studied at university many years ago), I came across something written about coloured letters of the alphabet, and I learned that this experience is a scientifically recognized thing, and that it has a name – synaesthesia. I was intrigued to learn that other people experience numbers and letters as having their own colours which never change. I had thought that it was only my own peculiarity, and I knew that it was a bit strange and I could think of no explanation for it. Having good sense, I had never mentioned it or discussed it with anyone else. It was nice to know that it is a harmless oddity that is really fairly common, but often kept secret. Some years later I found out that there is a group of online tests that one can do to verify if one has various types of colour synaesthesia such as coloured letters, numbers, days of the week and months. This group of tests is the Synesthesia Battery. It also includes some test involving musical notes which I have no clue about. I believe this battery is the work of a team of researchers at an American university, and after doing it, I can see that it is a test that would be hard to cheat. The beauty of this test is that it relies on genuine synaesthetes using their synaesthesia to outperform non-synaesthetes. I had a go at the tests of coloured things, and my scores were thus:

Grapheme Color Picker Test – Score: 0.38

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0. A perfect score of 0.0 would mean that there was no difference in the colors selected on each successive presentation of the same letter.”

Speed-Congruency Test – Accuracy 90.28%, Mean Reaction Time 1.469 seconds +/- 0.508

“An accuracy percentage of right answers in the range of 85-100 typically indicates synesthetic association between the graphemes and colors. Those below typically rule out synesthesia.”

Weekday Color Picker Test – Score: 0.32

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0.”

Month Color Picker Test – Score: 0.46

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0.”

So, there can be no doubt that I am “synesthetic”. The colours in my head are scientifically proven to be real. I didn’t need some scientist to tell me that, but this is confirmation. I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and some other types of synaesthesia in addition to that.

After experiencing “the strange phenomenon” for many months, and gradually figuring out that there are very specific and narrow conditions that must be met for this phenomenon to happen, and realising that it works like synaesthesia, I realised that it is interestingly different to all of the types of synaesthesia that I have read about, because it involves faces and the recognition of faces. This was interesting enough, but it was another aspect of the situation that really gave me pause for thought. I understood that “the strange phenomenon” seems to be showing me that two people who I had seen are linked, possibly completely unknown to each other, by some kind of shared genetic condition. This is the only explanation that I can think of as to why two unrelated people of different genders have such similar-looking faces, among other similarities. I knew that this was a pretty incredible thing to see or to know, especially if the people involved do not know the full story. These people do not look diseased or strange, and they definitely are not intellectually impaired, so the situation is not obvious. The whole situation is socially bizarre and full of moral questions. I also reflected on the possibility that my interest in faces and similarities between faces is beyond ordinary. Would another person notice a face that looks like their mother’s in a drawing by Mucha? Who knows? Am I different? I was sure there was nothing wrong with my ability to recognize faces, but having an interest in scientific stuff, I knew that there is a condition named prosopagnosia, and that there are tests designed by scientists to diagnose people with this problem, and I thought it would be a good idea to try a test just to be sure that something funny wasn’t going on in my scone. I found my way to http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/ I did the tests that I found there:

The Famous Faces Test – Score: 30 correct out of a possible score of 30 (100%)

“On our previous version of this test, the average person with normal face recognition was able to recognize about 85% of the faces they were familiar with.”

Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) – Score 72 correct out of a possible score of 72 (100%)

“On our previous version of this test, the average person with normal face recognition was able to recognize about 80% of the faces.”

I accidentally did this same test, with the same faces, a second time when I had a go at a battery of tests and a questionnaire at another site on the internet that included the CFMT. Again I got a perfect score of 72 out of 72. I guess this result shouldn’t be taken too seriously, because me having previous practice could have boosted my score, but one might also argue that this score indicated that my first perfect score wasn’t just an accident of chance. These perfect scores were all quite a shock, and I was left curious about what my real level of ability is in this area, because there is always the possibility that tests such as these are too easy to measure the upper extreme of ability. It appeared that I had hit a ceiling.

I’m not sure when it was that I came across the concept of the super-recognizer. Super-recognizers are people at the upper extreme of level of ability in recognizing faces. A Google search easily finds the science journal paper that introduced the concept of the super-recognizer. The authors are university researchers Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama. I read the paper with interest, and I thought some of the unique experiences reported by super-recognizers were similar to my experiences. Super-recognizers are able to recognize casual acquaintances who haven’t been seen for many years. I thought this type of ability was similar to my being able to remember Jean’s face, a person who was nobody to me many years ago, and knowing my test scores, I knew there was a possibility that I belong in this group. The researchers found that the super-recognizers did better than the controls in two face recognition tests, including one that I had already done, the 72 question version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, and like me 3 of the 4 super-recognizers got perfect scores in this test, while none of the controls did. I had actually scored better than one of the super-recognizers in this test, who got one question wrong. But this test alone didn’t appear to be enough to decisively sort the super-recognizers from the normal people. The other test discussed in the journal paper was the Before They Were Famous Test, and it looked as though it was difficult. I would need to do this test of face recognition ability or another just as difficult, and do well, in order to really confirm that I am a super-recognizer.

The idea of me as a super-recognizer was most interesting for a variety of reasons: it would be an element of solving the puzzle of “the strange phenomenon”, it is an ability that could be marketable or useful in many ways, and I was the only case that I knew of linking synaesthesia with unusually good ability in face recognition. I had already heard of synaesthetes who have trouble recognizing faces, but not the opposite, although the science explaining grapheme-colour synaesthesia seems to suggest that high ability is likely, considering that this type of synaesthesia is caused by extra connectivity and involves the fusiform gyrus which also plays a central role in face processing. So I was pretty keen to have a go at the Before They Were Famous Test or something similar, but unlike the other tests, it did not appear to be easily accessible through the internet. I was forced to approach researchers for help. At this point my story slowed down considerably. I have given a detailed account of my dealings with university researchers from all around the world, including doing face recognition tests in person at an Australian university, in my 2011 post titled “Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year” (see link below).

Just out of curiousity I’ve recently had a go at the “Face to Face online study” from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which is actually the CFMT and a similar test of recognizing motor cars (which are possibly not real models). I got a score of 71 out of 72 (99%) for the CFMT (average score given as 75%), and in the car recognition test I got 62 out of 72 (86%) which can’t be judged as the test is still being developed and the researchers don’t have enough data to give an average score. My score on the CFMT this time should be considered in light of the fact that the faces in the test presented by the MIT are the same faces that I’ve already seen when I took this same test at at Faceblind.org, so I should have had some advantage at that test. Out of curiousity again I did a face memory test that I found at the website of the BBC. I got a perfect score for face recognition, a score of 91% for temporal memory associated with face memory (average score 68%) and a low number of false-positive identifications.

So, up to this point I know these things: I am “very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.”, I most definitely have “synesthetic association between the graphemes and colors” and I have high ability in recognizing faces that is consistent with being a super-recognizer.

I have kept records of my results in all of the tests mentioned, including printouts of screen-shots of my scores in the online tests. My test results from The Synesthesia Battery are also kept stored in computerized form, and with my consent can be shared with other researchers anywhere in the world through email. I am happy to share this information with qualified university-based researchers or established science journalists who might be interested. To date no researcher from any part of the world has online or in person asked to see any of the test results that I have mentioned in this article.

Further reading:

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/

 Links to Tests Mentioned

The Synesthesia Battery

http://www.synesthete.org/

“Eyes Test (Adult)”

http://www.autismresearchcentre.com/tests/eyes_test_adult.asp

“Reading the mind in the eyes”

http://glennrowe.net/BaronCohen/Faces/EyesTest.aspx

Vision, Memory, and Face Recognition Online

http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/index.php

Massachusetts Institute of Technology “MIT’s Face to Face online study” “Investigating face memory in people with and without autism” “Principle Investigator: Nancy Kanwisher, Ph.D.”

http://facetoface.mit.edu/

BBC Science Face Memory Test  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/