Friday, May 29, 2009

MSNBC Story on Super-Recognizers

Some people never forget a face - Behavior

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Some people never forget a face
'Super-recognizers' have uncanny ability to remember everyone they meet
By Elizabeth Fernandez contributor
updated 8:27 a.m. ET, Thurs., May 28, 2009

We've all had that sinking feeling: a person seems familiar, someone we might have once met, but somehow we just can't place the face.

Not Jennifer Jarett. She never forgets a face. Not even someone she met for just a moment, not even decades later.

Jarett is a "super-recognizer,'' a freshly minted term for an elite group of people who are exceptional at remembering faces.

"It's sort of a weird thing to be able to do,'' says Jarett, 38, a Manhattan resident who works as a city employee. "My friends refer to me as their memory. People's faces don't really change to me, even people from my childhood. It's as if they are cemented in my brain.''

Psychologists at Harvard University have discovered that Jarett shares her special knack with others, establishing for the first time that some people have superior skills at face recognition.  

From face blind to super-vision
New research shows that there's a broad range of face-recognition ability, a spectrum ranging from the "face blind'' to those on the opposite end with superior powers of perception.

"Super-recognizers actually see faces differently,'' says Dr. Richard Russell, a researcher in the Harvard Vision Sciences Laboratory and lead author of the new study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. "They can recognize people out of context, people who aren't important to them, people who they may have met only briefly.''

Russell and his colleagues were investigating developmental prosopagnosia, a condition in which people have normal vision but are unable to recognize faces, even those of close relatives — an estimated 2 percent of the general population has exceptionally poor face-recognition ability.

Amid the research, the scientists were contacted by Jarett and several others claiming to have stellar recognition abilities.

Intrigued, the scientists concocted a battery of difficult tests. One, called Before They Were Famous, required the subjects to identify famous individuals as children. All four test subjects passed the experiments with high marks. 

"My boyfriend called me a freak of nature,'' says Christine Erickson, 42, a stay-at-home mother of two in Boston, one of the super-recognizers.  Erickson once had a chance encounter with a woman who years earlier had been her waitress.

"She had transformed from being an edgy-looking urban hipster to having long hair and looking completely different,'' says Erickson. "I flipped through my mental files and recognized her.''

Super-recognizer or, um, stalker?
To their chagrin, super-recognizers have learned that their special gifts are not always appreciated.

"People sometimes give me strange looks, like I was stalking them,'' says Jarett.

Riding the subway about a year ago, she recognized a man who once worked for her hairdresser.

"I said 'You were Barry's assistant.' He looked at me funny — it had been five years. So I said 'Oh, the reason I remember you is because you did such a good job blowing out my hair.' He seemed really flattered.''

Jarett hasn't found any particular use for her skill, but the study says benefits might surface. For instance, airport security employees could be screened for their ability to recognize faces, and eyewitnesses to crimes could similarly be assessed.

Tips for ordinary folks
For people with average ability, Dr. Jim Tanaka, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, who is not connected with the new study, offers a few tips to enhance recognition.

"Pay close attention to the dynamics of the face — the movement, the expressions, the different angles,'' says Tanaka, who studies cognitive and neurological processes underlying face recognition.

Also, he says, put less emphasis on superficial cues that can change over time, such as hairstyles and eyeglasses.

"Try to remember the structural aspects of the face instead of incidental surface features,'' he says. "Don't focus too much on details, but rather form an overall, holistic impression of a person's face.''

As for Jarett, she's thrilled with her new scientific designation.

"My friends and I joke that I should get a cape with a big S on it,'' she says. "When I was little, I always wanted to have super powers. Now I'm finally getting to fulfill my childhood dream.''

Elizabeth Fernandez is a writer based in San Francisco.

© 2009  Reprints


© 2009

Sunday, May 24, 2009

New Topographical Agnosia Group

Since many of us with Prosopagnosia also have topographagnosia, ot Topographica Agnosia, or Topographical Agnosia, or Navigational Agnosia, or Topographical Disorientation (let's jsut call it TA, alright?), I decided to start a Yahoo Group where we could discuss are trials and tribulations of living with TA. Feel free to join the group and join the discussion.

It would be nice to create a number of real-life stories there, so people who are looking to diagnose themselves could go there, read, and become more familiar with the condition.

If you would like to subscribe, send an email here:

Please indicate why you are interested in subscribing.
You can find the group under the name Topographical Agnosia.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

'Super-recognizers - Opposite of Prosopagnosics?

'Super-recognizers,' with extraordinary face recognition ability, never forget a face

this link from EurekaAlert!

Contact: Amy Lavoie
Harvard University

'Super-recognizers,' with extraordinary face recognition ability, never forget a face

Research suggests that face recognition may vary more than previously understood

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 19, 2009 – Some people say they never forget a face, a claim now bolstered by psychologists at Harvard University who've discovered a group they call "super-recognizers": those who can easily recognize someone they met in passing, even many years later.

The new study suggests that skill in facial recognition might vary widely among humans. Previous research has identified as much as 2 percent of the population as having "face-blindness," or prosopagnosia, a condition characterized by great difficulty in recognizing faces. For the first time, this new research shows that others excel in face recognition, indicating that the trait could be on a spectrum, with prosopagnosics on the low end and super-recognizers at the high end.

The research is published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and was led by Richard Russell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, with co-authors Ken Nakayama, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and Brad Duchaine of the University College London.

The research involved administering standardized face recognition tests. The super-recognizers scored far above average on these tests—higher than any of the normal control subjects.

"There has been a default assumption that there is either normal face recognition, or there is disordered face recognition," says Russell. "This suggests that's not the case, that there is actually a very wide range of ability. It suggests a different model—a different way of thinking about face recognition ability, and possibly even other aspects of perception, in terms of a spectrum of abilities, rather than there being normal and disordered ability."

Super-recognizers report that they recognize other people far more often than they are recognized. For this reason, says Russell, they often compensate by pretending not to recognize someone they met in passing, so as to avoid appearing to attribute undue importance to a fleeting encounter.

"Super-recognizers have these extreme stories of recognizing people," says Russell. "They recognize a person who was shopping in the same store with them two months ago, for example, even if they didn't speak to the person. It doesn't have to be a significant interaction; they really stand out in terms of their ability to remember the people who were actually less significant."

One woman in the study said she had identified another woman on the street who served as her as a waitress five years earlier in a different city. Critically, she was able to confirm that the other woman had in fact been a waitress in the different city. Often, super-recognizers are able to recognize another person despite significant changes in appearance, such as aging or a different hair color.

If face recognition abilities do vary, testing for this may be important for assessing eyewitness testimony, or for interviewing for some jobs, such as security or those checking identification.

Russell theorizes that super-recognizers and those with face-blindness may only be distinguishable today because our communities differ from how they existed thousands of years ago.

"Until recently, most humans lived in much smaller communities, with many fewer people interacting on a regular basis within a group," says Russell. "It may be a fairly new phenomenon that there's even a need to recognize large numbers of people."


The research was funded by the U.S. National Eye Institute and the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council.