55: Super Recognizers
Two percent of the population has the almost uncanny ability to recognize and remember faces from chance meetings even years before. We talk about how and why AND tell you about a test you can take to see where you fit on the spectrum.
Super Recognizers Transcript:
Welcome to Brain Junk, I’m Amy Barton and I’m Trace Kerr, and it’s time for a Brain Storm.
TK: So I heard this NPR story about a Scotland Yard Super Recognizer.
AB: I like that idea.
TK: They are used to identify people of interest from closed circuit television. So let’s talk about what a super recognizer is. That’s a person who can memorize a person’s face in an instant and they’re able to recall them years later. So even if you only met once, like if I saw you across the room, then four or five years later if I bumped into you, I’d be like “Hey! I bumped into you at the so-and-so’s party!” and you don’t even remember the party. Well, there were people who were studying reasons for why people have trouble recognizing familiar faces. And these researchers, led by Russell Duchenne, they were doing some studies and then they had four people who had better than ordinary ability to memorize faces.
AB: But not memory overall in general.
TK: Well no, but this isn’t memorizing, this is this super recognizing thing. One person said “I learned to stop surprising people with comments like “Weren’t you at so and so concert last fall and I recognize you?”. Another one said “I have to pretend I don’t remember people because it seems like I’m stalking them.”
AB: It’s weird.
TK: Yeah, or they mean more to me than they do when I recall that we saw each other. And so they’ll be like “Oh! She remembered me!” and it’s like, no, I remember everybody. Don’t take it personally.
AB Before I had kids I would say I had, I would say a little better than average-I’m not a super recognizer, but I could probably remember “Oh hey, it’s Sally from fourth grade! How are you?” Now that I have kids that’s gone away, but totally is a little bit weird for people that don’t.
TK: And since we’re on a spectrum, so, in this paper, they tested the four people who were super recognizers against 24 other regular people. With the BFTW test-the Before they were Famous test.
AB: I was making up my on in my head. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger working in a Dairy Queen…
TK: Yes, or and they will also remove the hair and things like that, so you’re just looking at the facial features. And it was startling how much better the super recognizers did. They have graphs and, you know, you’ve got your straight line, which is the median, and your 26 people are kind sprinkled all around it on the lower 1/3rd and then the four were way up on thir own for recognizing faces.
AB: Even without the context of “Oh, he’s a redhead.”?
TK: Yeah, they don’t exactly know why some people are so much better at this. Most agree that being able to recognize faces is important. They found that infants demonstrate a preference for faces within an hour of birth, even if it’s just a paper plate with two eyes and a smile on it. They will look at those things, so we’re attuned to look at faces. And it does seem to be genetic. They’ve tested identical twins versus fraternal twins. So identical twins, they’re one egg split in half, two people. They show the same aptitude.
AB: I want to know who did that research and what mom said yes to that. Like one hour after birth, “Hi ma’am, I know you’re still, you know, getting dialed back in after delivering your babies, but we’d like to bring a paper plate and show it to your baby…”
TK:And just see if they turn their head a little bit…That’s probably one of those things when they say “We’re going to go wash the baby” and take them away.
TK: And while we’re here, we’re just going to do a couple studies, nothing invasive, don’t worry, it’ll be fine! Oh! So you said that you felt like you were better at recognizing faces back in the day. Well here’s a really cool thing-you can take a test.
AB: Ooooh, I love tests!
TK: Yeah. So Brad Duchenne and Ken Nakiama, they’re the ones from the paper that I referenced before, they are still doing research, so you can go to testmybrain.org/superrecruitment, we have a link in our show notes, and you take a test where you look at computer generated faces and you do some memorizing of different faces, and then they put them with faces that you haven’t seen and you have to pick them out of the group.
TK: It is so fun! There are 72 possible correct answers, and I scored a 68.
AB: Ooooh! Good job!
TK Average is 58.5, so I was higher than 9 out of every 10 people. So here’s the thing that’s funny to me. I can’t remember people’s names. Ever. But at least now I can show people my test score and say “Look, I do remember you.”
AB: I remember you, cheek mole.
TK:I know, I remember you weird bent ear.
AB: We had that moment in the grocery line.
AB: Want to hear more? We’re on Facebook and INstagram as BrainJunkPodcast and you can find us on Twitter as @MyBrainJunk. Trace and I will catch you later with everything you never knew you wanted to know, and I guarantee you will not be bored. Umm, if I start reading the paper I’m like “Please stop saying standard deviation. Please stop.” All the stuff that they show there. All right.