Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Day 2 of Digest Super Week: meet a super-recogniser

For many years psychologists have studied people whose brain damage has impaired their ability to recognise faces. More recently it became clear that there is another group of individuals who are born with this deficit, or develop it early in childhood. Media coverage of this "developmental prosopagnosia" (also known as face-blindness) prompted yet another group of unusual individuals to come forward - they told researchers they didn't have trouble recognising faces, rather they were unusually skilled at it. These are the super-recognisers. Let me introduce you to one of them, Moira Jones:

I am a super-recogniser 

I have always known that I have the “never forgetting a face thing,” but never for a second thought it had a name, or that when I took one of the recognition tests, I would score the highest ever recorded. It was then, that I thought:  I really want, if possible, to do something with this thing that I had sometimes thought of as an affliction. 

Every week I instantly and effortlessly identify people I know I have met a long time ago in a situation of which they have no recollection. I will usually remember instantly where I have seen them before and I often freak them out with this. I've had to learn to keep my recognitions to myself at times or risk coming across as odd.

I worked in retail for many years and knew throughout that my ability to remember faces could certainly benefit me in my work. Customers greatly appreciated being recognised and I built up a rapport with many customers who would be served only by me. I not only knew each customer's face, but would recall what they had purchased and many other details about them.

In one place of work, a robbery had taken place and the detectives involved in the case showed me a book of maybe two hundred photos of possible suspects. I recognised the two people concerned immediately and they were subsequently arrested.

I am now a couple counsellor and so far, in my client work, have not come across anyone whom I have met previously. I am sure at some point this will happen. Having said that, I was recently introduced to a colleague's partner, whom I instantly recognised: I had served him in a store around 2002. I recounted this to him and what he had been looking at in the shop and he was astounded. Does super-recognition help me in my current field? I am not sure: maybe I just haven't recognised it yet ..?

If anyone reading this has any thoughts on how, or where I might apply this skill, please do let me know. Now I know I have a very specific talent, I am eager to put it to good use.

Moira Jones, aged 44, is a couple counsellor based in Edinburgh. Email her on mojocharlie [at] yahoo.co.uk

A note from psychologist Dr Ashok Jansari who recruited Moira for his research

I've been fascinated by face-recognition ever since hearing of "prosopagnosia" or face-blindness while studying cognitive neuropsychology as an undergrad. Having been lucky enough to work with some people who had the condition following brain damage as well has having a developmental variant, I was intrigued when I heard that research had begun on people at the other end of the spectrum, so-called 'super-recognisers'. I therefore set up an MSc research project to look for some super-recognisers in 2010 and have been exploring the phenomenon ever since. In 2011, I was given a three-month Wellcome-funded Live Science residency at London's Science Museum where I ran a large study to look at the Great British public's face recognition and in 2012, I helped in a Channel 4 "Science meets X-Factor" programme called Hidden Talents where scientific principles were used to find people who had skills that they were largely unaware of. Through these events, I have recruited a set of super-recognisers like Moira; I am conducting research with these special people to see what makes their face-recognition so good. The findings will hopefully inform theoretical models of face-recognition, possibly help refine software and maybe even one day be used to help individuals with prosopagnosia. If you know anyone who thinks they are a super-recogniser or a prosopagnosic, I would very much like to hear from them on A.Jansari [at] uel.ac.uk

--Further reading--
In the current issue of The Psychologist, Drs Jansari, Josh Davis and Karen Lander investigate super-recognisers in the police and the general public in their article "I never forget a face".
Previously on the Digest: What is it like to be face-blind?

Tomorrow we meet a super-humane professor.

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