Tag Archives: Visual Memory

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.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/seeing-patterns-(even-when-they-aren%E2%80%99t-there)/8421130

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?

I wish, I wish…

I’d love to be reading and writing about fascinating and largely unexplored topics in neuroscience and psychology such as superagers, super-visualisers and aphantasia, but Christmas and all the associated this and that, and the everyday business of parenting in the summer holidays and housekeeping takes up my time.

Interesting to read that aphantasia was apparently first identified by Sir Francis Galton in 1880, even though it has only recently been given the name aphantasia and come to the attention of contemporary researchers. Galton was also one of the earliest researchers to describe various varieties of synaesthesia, before they were all named as such. Galton was one hell of a scientist, back in the days when a man of means could spend his days exploring vast unknown territories of psychology. Is research so different these days? Science is now a bit more open to women researchers, and there’s still much to explore.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3541673/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112820-superagers-with-amazing-memories-have-alzheimers-brain-plaques/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2104221-superagers-with-amazing-memories-have-shrink-resistant-brains/new

http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34039054

Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. Lives without imagery–Congenital aphantasia. Cortex, 3.
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Adam_Zeman/publication/279234629_Lives_without_imagery_-_Congenital_aphantasia/links/573612f208ae9f741b29cd33.pdf

 

Memory is fallible, but then again, there’s super-recognizers

It appears that super-recognizers (people with very good face recognition ability) are mentioned in the new book The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw, but I cannot find a preview of that bit of text. I’d be interested in reading what Shaw wrote about supers, because I believe that we are very good evidence against the argument that this book, and some other pop psychology books have offered, that human memory is unreliable and open to interference. I’ve noticed that writing by researchers and authors who offer arguments against the reliability of human memory and also those who offer arguments against the idea of natural or inborn talent tend to ignore or gloss over the many things that science already knows about face recognition, face memory and super-recognizers.

I’m happy to admit that people who perform amazing feats of semantic memory such as remembering huge lists of random facts or meaningless digits using new or ancient memory techniques have trained their own memories with many hours of practice, but super-recognizers are very different to those people. We do not knowingly or deliberately train ourselves and we do not consciously use tricks or techniques. Maybe we self-train and invent strategies in an implicit manner, but it is also true that super-recognition does seem to run in families, so there seems to be an important genetic contribution to the elite ability or talent, just as there is clearly a genetic component to developmental prospagnosia (very poor face recognition ability).

Face memory researchers have been investigating the phenomenon of super-recognition since it was first described in 2009, and there seems to be ample evidence that supers have very long-lasting, adaptable, and reliable memory of the faces of other humans. We can remember faces across many decades and across changes in facial appearance by forces such as ageing. I believe I am very good at spotting facial family resemblance and facial phenotypes across gender and age. Super-recognizers can also display very accurate face recognition after being briefly shown images of only faces (no hair etc) of a large group of faces of same gender and similar age, some of them very degraded images. This accuracy requires being able to avoid false positives and false negatives. There’s no denying that supers are bloody good at faces. There’s also no denying that some other people are very poor at face memory, so authors of these pop psychology books that denigrate human memory are able to state with a vague air of truth that human memory for faces is fallible. But such a statement ignores what we know about supers, and this is why I have issues with the common practice of psychology researchers of roputinely discarding data from outliers in their studies. If any of that discarded data is from outlier study participants that did incredible well in tests of face recognition or memory, then those participants could be supers and their data tells an important story about human memory and human face recognition.

I think supers are interesting examples of a type of human memory that stands out from other types of human memory as reliable, long-lasting, easily or unconsciously enmcoded and accurate, so one should wonder, why is the face memory of supers so great? My bet is that this niche example of human memory has two characteristics that give it special power: it is disributed across a broad network of neurons throughout the brain (and this is why it might be found along-side synaesthesia), and it is also a type of visual memory, which I can only assume is a very ancient and well-evolved type of human memory that predates stuff like writing and language, that happens in areas of the brain that work amazingly and unconsciously because they evloved well before there ever were humans. I cannot imagine how genuine face memory could ever be interfered with by suggestion or manipulation, because the tricks that some memory researchers have used to fool around with the memories of study participants work on a conscious level communicated by verbal means. Genuine face memory is implicit and visual. It is safe from such nonsense.

The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw:

https://books.google.com.au/books?id=OdKOCwAAQBAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s

 

Large twin study using the CFMT reportedly finds face recognition is heritable but largely independent of general intelligence and object recognition ability

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/09/24/1421881112.full.pdf?with-ds=yes

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28258-our-knack-for-remembering-faces-is-a-highly-evolved-skill/

I wish I had the full scientific background to fully interpret this interesting new study, because the results have HUGE implications in psychology, but as far as I know are not particularly surprising or at odds with related research. The genetic and phenotypic independence of face recognition ability would smash to smithereens the long-debated idea of “g”, or one (mysterious) factor largely determining general mental ability. Face recognition or face memory appears to defy “g”, but all the same, I can’t help clinging to the idea that there’s a link between top ability in face recognition and at least some other cognitive gifts. Based on personal experience I find it hard to leave behind the idea of a link between elite reading and writing ability, synaesthesia and superior face recognition.

Placing the heritability of face recognition ability at 61%, as this study has done, kicks sand in the face of the long and bitterly debated idea that giftedness or talent is the result of long hours of focused training rather than innate ability, but I can think of one researcher who has championed the “trained not innate” position on talent or expertise for many years, who seems to lack an awareness of the entire body of face recognition research, instead focusing his attentions on elite performers in sport, music, memory and chess. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

I am a super-recognizer, and I have no memory of ever training my ability in recognizing or memorizing faces, and no one has coached, pressured nor trained me to this specific task. I defy those who argue that intelligence is “environment” not genetics to explain me and faces. Up until a few years ago I had no idea I was even above average with faces, so don’t ask me.

Interesting research project about Tetris, PTSD and visual memory continues

Recent article in New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27846-tetris-blocks-traumatic-flashbacks-even-after-the-memory-is-fixed.html#.VZtbnfmqpBc

2015 journal paper: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/07/01/0956797615583071.full.pdf+html

2009 journal paper: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0004153

Blog article that I wrote in 2011 linking Tetris Effect with PTSD and synaesthesia, inspired by reading an autobiographical work by an acclaimed novelist:

https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/are-the-flashbacks-that-are-an-element-of-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-a-troublesome-variety-of-synaesthesia/

As is the case with face recognition, it’s all about visual memory.

Too exciting! Nobel Prize awarded for research on stuff that I’ve been writing about here

Visual recognition of places or scenes, mental navigation, a sense of place and the normal mental memory function that is the basis for the “method of loci” memory technique are some of the interesting psychological subjects that I have written about here, and it appears that my interests very much overlap with the areas of research pioneered by John O’Keefe and May-Britt and Edvard Moser, all winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Medicine. This team spent a great part of their careers doing research on rats, and their discoveries include grid cells and “place cells” which are nerve cells in the hippocampus that only activate when the rat is in a specific physical location. I’m not clear whether the grid cells and the place cells are the same thing or not. Read about their fascinating and important research here.

I’m feeling very frustrated right now as I am sure that somewhere in this blog I’ve written a description of an experience that I occasionally have while travelling in a train in unfamiliar lines or at night, in which it appears that two different mental navigational systems in my brain go “out of sync” causing a temporary sense of confusion about where I am. One of these navigational systems is based on visual perception of scenes while the other is based on a body-centred, visceral, embodied, spatial, sense of direction, and the common language “spoken” between these two systems is the visual memory of scenes, (which is of interest in my case because this function is encoded in pretty-much the same part of the brain as face memory, and I’m a super-recognizer). Normally the visual perception of scenes system informs and regularly updates the directional sense system, and the directional system accesses a sequentially-encoded system of visual memories of places and then sends predictions about expected scenery back to the visual system. Sometimes when visual scene recognition operates at the edges of ability and fails to provide input to or misinforms the directional system, the directional system works in an uncertain and speculative way, and at times is confronted with input of visual scenes that do not fit the predictions of expected scenery sent from the scene memory bank. This is the “spin-out” moment. Following this head-spinning moment of confusion is a sense of “Where the f*** are we?”, and my sense of navigation will either be reset from a combination of conscious knowledge of direction combined with visual memories of scenes or fresh comprehensible visual input. This is my interpretation of these types of experiences, which I believe are interesting and can inform us about normal mental navigation. I am very conscious of visual memories of scenes because I experience a number of types of synaesthesia in which these memories are either inducers or concurrents. I believe I am the first person in the world who has taken the time to write and publish full descriptions of these experiences, here at this blog. I have asserted that one of these types of synaesthesia is the same or very similar to the very powerful and ancient method of loci memory technique, which involves activation of a number of parts of the human brain, including the hippocampus.

Would you like to follow these steps?

First go the the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine):  https://archive.org/

Then copy and paste the web address of this blog into the search form that you will find there, removing the beginning bit, and click on “BROWSE HISTORY”:   https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/

The results screen that comes up will show you how many times this blog has been archived by the Internet Archive over the years.

Click on the year 2012, then click on the date June 21st 2012.

The Internet Archive will display to you their archived record of the home page of this blog as recorded on June 21st 2012. You will see a blog coloured in green and blue with stories featuring photos of some sculptures seen around Perth, but the thing that you might (or might not) find interesting is the blog post that is third down the page which was first published on June 7th 2012. This is the blog post where I briefly but clearly published my ideas suggesting causal relationships between the human immune system and synaesthesia, and low levels of some of the complement immune chemicals and synaesthesia, all related to the regulation of developmental synaptic pruning and synaptic plasticity involving the activity of microglia, and in this post I also restated my previously-published speculation that the variety of dementia known as Benson’s syndrome or posterior cortical atrophy could be regarded as the opposite of developmental synaesthesia associated with special abilities in visual perception such as super-recognition ability and exceptional reading ability, a cluster of traits that appears to run in at least one family. Got that? The point I’m trying to make is that I published this stuff in June 2012, I thought of these ideas independently and as far as I can tell no one else had previously published these ideas anywhere, including in scientific journals.

Now take a look at this paper in a neuroscience journal which was published in 2013 and was received by the journal as a draft or manuscript on July 31st 2013:  http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00563/full

Do any of the themes in the paper seem familiar? Does my blog or myself receive any credit or acknowledgement in the paper? Hmm.

Regardless of any issues related to originality or acknowledgement, the important point in all of this is that here we have some ideas about a type of dementia which could conceivably have some medical or scientific use or value. My idea of linking synaesthesia with the immune system is nice but just a step in a possibly much more important sequence of ideas. I’d like to give those ideas another airing, while also restating that I thought of them a long time ago independently and claim all due credit. I hope you don’t mind.

Calling all supers! New testing opportunity for all, and for some to take part in a study

http://www.testmybrain.org/SupersRecruitment.html

One of the world’s leading researchers in the related areas of face memory, face recognition, prosopagnosia and super-recognition has given me the tip that super-recognizers are wanted as research subjects, and they are being recruited through the above web link which appears to be associated with the long-running online research and volunteer testing website TestMyBrain. I have also been advised that for this study the researchers are looking for subjects who reside in the continental states of the United States of America, but if that isn’t you, and you get a very high score in the test and follow the instructions and send the researchers your score there is some possibility that some time in the future you might be sought for some other study. Of course, you don’t have to share your score with anyone, and you might wish to take this test simply to get a good idea of what level of face memory ability you have. Maybe you suspect that you might have prosopagnosia (disability in face memory) or you might just want verification that you are what we call normal. When I finished the test I was given my own score and also an average score, so I guess you could use this test to compare yourself against the norm. I am not sure whether the researchers might object to curious people rather than potential super-recognizer study subjects doing the test. If that is a problem, they can let me know. I am also not 100% sure whether or not all scores from doing the online test are used as anonymous research data, as is the case in some websites that offer online neuro-cognitive testing, or is this testing merely used to screen eligible candidates for an upcoming study of super-recognizers. I suspect the latter. You should contact the researchers yourself if you have any questions.

This is an important new opportunity to undergo a test of face memory ability because this test is a version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, a test that has a well-deserved reputation as a scientifically valid test of face memory, and it has been quite a long time since I’ve been aware of any version of the CFMT being openly available to take through the internet. This test appears to be a third version of the CFMT, the first being a 72 question short form, the second version being the 102 question long form, and this version being another 72 question version but with new faces (I’m pretty good at judging these things) that are computer-generated. All versions have all male faces. I recall reading somewhere that the faces used for the first version of the CFMT are based on real American Caucasian people. It’s probably a good idea to use computer-generated faces for the latest version, to avoid the possibility that real people might be stopped in the street by super-recognizers exclaiming “Hey! You’re one of those blokes in that face recognition test!”

For people hoping to find a way of documenting their own status as a super-recognizer this is an opportunity to do a scientifically credible test of face recognition and also get access to your own written score in that test along with an average score, but be advised that I did not automatically get any printed statement verifying that my score was in the range of super-recognizers, and I did not notice any printed range of scores for super-recognizers given anywhere in the testing. It was pretty obvious from the results page that my score was in the elite range though. I have been advised by someone who should know that a score of 69 is considered to be in the super-recognizer range. I found this test to be harder than the first version of the CFMT, and I suspect that super-recognizers might find that they don’t bump their heads on a ceiling with this test. Information that I have at hand suggests that the average score on the new 72 question version of the CFMT is lower than the average score on the old 72 question version. For super-recognizers who are eligible and willing to take part in the study after they have done the screening test I guess there might be further opportunities to document their status as a super-recognizer and meet researchers, but I can only guess. At least your participation would give you the right to refer to yourself as a “Citizen Scientist”, which sounds fairly impressive. As I live in Australia I will not be able to participate in the study so I can’t advise you where it all leads. My best tips for people interested in documenting their score are to follow the instructions carefully, be ready to take your own full-colour print-outs of any screen with your score on it and if you have questions contact the people behind the test.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve been asked by a researcher from an overseas university to help with recruiting supers for research studies, and I’m happy to help with genuine requests because I like to see science moving forward and I know that participating in research can be interesting and sometimes rewarding. The website TestMyBrain is associated with many genuine researchers of social psychology, neuro-cognition, visual perception, face perception and various interesting and important things, including researchers from the Social Perception Lab at Dartmouth College and researchers from the prestigious Harvard University. Researchers linked to the website appear to be generally based at universities and colleges in the United States of America.

In case you are curious, my score on the new test is 69 out of 72 and I have been advised that my score is in the super-recognizer range. As I have written about in old posts at this blog, I have also done the earlier versions of the CFMT. The first version of the CFMT was either the first or the second face memory test that I ever did, and I was amazed at the time to get perfect scores on both online tests I did that day. I had gotten 72 out of 72 on the old version of the CFMT, but till then I had no idea that I was a super-recognizer. In 2010 through an Australian university I did some face memory tests in person and I firmly believe one of those tests was the long form of the CFMT, my score in that one given as “96%”, which presumably means I got 98 correct out of a possible 102 correct, which is well within the super-recognizer range, based on data about supers from the 2009 journal paper that launched the concept of the super-recognizer. As I’ve stated earlier, I have at hand data that indicates that the new CFMT is more difficult than the earlier version of the same length. The norm for the first version was given as 80% correct face recognition (presumably an average score of 57.6 out of 72) while the average for the new version is currently cited as a score of 52.49 (out of 72). So it appears that the CFMT has become more difficult while my face memory ability has not measurably changed in the four years since it was first tested.

I wish the researchers planning to study supers the best of luck and I look forward to reading a published report of what they find. We are all working to help people and to advance scientific knowledge, and those are for sure two noble causes.

Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show enhanced visual recognition memory for a variety of things

I wonder where they got the idea for these studies:

Jamie Ward, Peter Hovard, Alicia Jones, and Nicolas Rothen Enhanced recognition memory in grapheme-color synaesthesia for different categories of visual stimuli. Frontiers in Psychology. 2013 Oct 24;4:762. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00762. eCollection 2013.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3807560/

http://www.frontiersin.org/journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00762/abstract

I guess it’s nice to see ideas that I have been exploring for years at this blog supported by research. Did you notice that this paper has the same publisher and the same month of publication as that paper, and one of the authors of this paper was an editor of that paper? I think I recognize a pattern.