I feel as though they are talking about me (and no that isn’t paranoia).
I feel as though they are talking about me (and no that isn’t paranoia).
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.
I’m amazed by two aspects of this interesting news story about an international competition run by the highly original author Douglas Coupland to find the world’s closest lookalike to the late great epileptic painter Vincent van Gogh. I’m amazed at how closely the British actor Daniel Baker in the photo shown visually resembles van Gogh in his face but also in so many other distinctive visible features. I can’t help wondering how closely the British man is like the legendary artist in his personality, talents and behaviour, if at all, and I’m also left wondering how far back the two might be related (all humans are related if you go back far enough), but all that is of course none of my business. This super-recognizer gives her seal of approval to the idea that Baker looks a heck of a lot like van Gogh. I am truly impressed, because I usually find celebrity lookalikes and lookalike competitions to be laughable due to the glaring differences between the faces of the “lookalike” and the real celebrity.
The other thing that I’m amazed about is the fact that all those other pictured men thought themselves as possible winners of the competition, when so many don’t really have faces or heads that look much like self-portraits of the artist (which we can assume were good likenesses). Being a van Gogh double requires more than having short ginger hair and beard and being a white man of similar age, with an intense look on your face. The face is the thing, and the shape of the head, the shape of the hairline and also the shape of the natural beardline, even the shape of the outline and the inner lines and the size of your ears (which may number one or two). I think it is interesting that it appears that the winner of the competition was not self-selected. It shows how little judgement some people apparently have into how visually close in resemblance one person is to another, which I guess is the result in a spectrum of person visual recognition ability.
I’m going to be really annoyed if in his acting career Baker never gets the chance to play van Gogh. It would be such a waste!
Van Gogh lookalike competition won by Dorset man. BBC News. November 25th 2016.
Davis, Josh (2016) Newly Described Orchid Has A Tiny Demon At Its Center. IFLS. 15th July 2016.
This amazing true crime story shows the utility of visual recognition of family resemblance, by children and adults, as a forensic tool. What was it about the way the sisters look that gave the clue that one was the missing sibling stolen as a newborn from a South African maternity hospital? Facial resemblance? The way they moved? Their expressions? Body shape? All of the above?
Within just a few seconds of looking at a photo in this Western Australian news story I knew something wasn’t right about the story, thanks to my great ability to identify plants by sight, which is I believe associated with my “super-recognizer” level of ability in face recognition and face memory.
Young, Emma Perth couple’s garden dream crushed for last time with Wembley verge demolition. WA Today. February 13th 2016.
Within the first sentence of the story the garden at the centre of the story is identified as an “eco-friendly garden” but at a glance I identified the two ground-cover plants in the first two photos as environmental weeds of South African origin, Osteospermum ecklonis and Carpobrotus edulis. There is nothing “eco-friendly” about a garden in which environmental weeds are planted and nurtured! The more I and others have looked into the story, the more things we have discovered that don’t add up. Beware!
This is just another hint at why employers, especially those in government, security and law enforcement, need to be considering visual recognition ability as well as face memory ability while recruiting and deploying employees, to the point of testing this ability. Visual recognition ability is vitally important in more ways than we can predict.
I don’t know whether its some thing to do with visual recognition or maybe some obscure variety of synaesthesia, but whenever I see that Donald Trump’s nasty little mouth in that pinched circular shape, the concept of “anus” instantly and involuntarily comes to mind. No seriously….
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.
Faces are special in many ways but they certainly aren’t the only body parts that are distinctive and can be individually visually remembered and recognized. Ear recognition has helped to solve at least a couple of famous crime mysteries. Hands can also be memorable and fingers exist in a variety of shapes. Hands and feet can be distinctive and subtle deformities are common. Even the humble toe can be a big deal to some people, and foot recognition is not limited to real feet because statues also need to stand on something.
Feet can also be misrecognized as something else. Is it a super-recognizer thing or does everyone get this sometime? You wake up, you stick your foot in the air out of the sheets and the blankets and there it is and you can’t help thinking “That is one horribly deformed hand” all the while consciously knowing it is just your more-or-less normal foot, but at the same time, you can see plain as day it’s anatomical heritage as a thing that once gripped more than plodded. Weird.
Balsamo, Annelise Toes. 360documentaries. Radio National. July 27th 2014. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/toes/5617412