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‘Super recognizers’: People who never forget a face

What sets super recognizers apart from the rest of us is their ability to recognize near-strangers, or people they’ve met only fleetingly.

crowd at notting hill carnival
London’s Metropolitan Police Service assigned super-recognizer officers to scan live video feed from the annual Notting Hill Carnival for the faces of known offenders.

I’ve written here before about prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” the rare neurological condition that makes it almost impossible to recognize faces, including those of close family members.

But I hadn’t really thought about people at the other end of the spectrum: those who can identify the faces of almost everybody they have ever encountered — even when the initial encounter was brief and long ago.

Writing in the Sept. 7 edition of ScienceNews, freelance science writer Susan Gaidos explores the latest research about these “super recognizers.” The topic alone is fascinating. Who wouldn’t want to be able to have that kind of exceptional recall? (It would help many of us avoid some awkward social situations.) But, as Gaidos points out, research on “super recognizers” also promises to lead scientists to a deeper understanding of how the brain functions. Right now, very little is known about how the brain categorizes faces.

There are practical applications to this research as well. “By identifying strategies used by super recognizers,” one researcher told Gaidos, “we may find ways to train others who have problems with face recognition, or help people who are in the normal range but have professional demands in which superior face recognition would be beneficial.”

Remembering near strangers

What sets super recognizers apart from the rest of us with ordinary or even very good face-recognition skills is their ability to recognize near-strangers, or people they’ve met only fleetingly. And they can recognize those people even when their appearance has significantly altered — a beard added or shaved off, for example, or a switch in hairstyle.

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Scientists believe that only about 1 percent of people fall into the super recognizer category. Most are unaware that they have this extraordinary skill. They just assume everybody remembers faces as well as they do.

How do they do it? One theory, says Gaidos, “is that super recognizers’ brains are better than others at something called ‘holistic’ processing, or viewing the face as a single unit. Studies of those with face blindness show that people who have difficulty recognizing faces tend to focus on individual parts. By contrast, people with normal face-recognition ability process faces as a ‘whole.’ ”

Researchers believe a particular area of the brain, called the fusiform gyrus, may be dedicated to facial recognition, although other areas of the brain are almost certainly also involved as well.

Scientists are trying to determine, adds Gaidos, “if super recognizers have other exceptional power, such as superior perception, which is the ability to tell one unfamiliar face from another simultaneously presented face. Such power might aid or work in addition to recognition, which is remembering a previously seen face.”

The skill in action

British researchers have identified and are studying a group of super recognizers among London’s Metropolitan Police Service. Indeed, last weekend the Met assigned these officers to scan live video feed from the annual Notting Hill Carnival for the faces of known offenders.

The special skills of some of these police officers became apparent when they were able to identify suspects involved in looting and other crimes during the 2011 London riots from the often grainy, incomplete images taken by the city’s security cameras.

“One officer alone,” writes Gaidos, “accounted for 190 identifications, pulling from memory faces he had seen before. In many cases, rioters wore heavy disguises — using scarves, bandannas, and hooded sweatshirts to protect their identities — leaving only the eyes visible.”

As Gaidos explains, most people find it easier to extract information about a face when it’s moving rather than static, as in a photo, but the super-recognizer police officers seem to be particularly adept at this.

May improve with training

Although very few of us are super recognizers, we may be able to improve our skills — at least a bit, reports Gaidos.

“Psychologist Isabel Gauthier of Vanderbilt University in Nashville has shown that the face-processing areas of the brain can be trained to identify other objects, such as cars and birds, holistically,” she writes. “Her findings suggest that if bird-watchers and car buffs can train their brains to specialize, others can, too.”

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Oh, dear. All cars look alike to me.

You can read Gaidos’ article online at the Science News website. A pdf of the 2009 study that first identified super recognizers is also available online.