How often do you stare blankly into someone's face and think "why don't I know who this is?,” as the other person smiles widely and goes in for a familiar hug.
You desperately search your brain. From work? Through friends? Tinder? You want to avoid the awkwardness, but your brain still has no clue who this is.
Such moments seem to be part of daily life for me. You see, I'm as close to being a prosopagnosic as you can get, without actually being one. Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognize faces, also referred to as face-blindness. Other people who have said they suffer from prosopagnosia include Oliver Sacks and Brad Pitt.
But there are also some rather enviable people who experience the opposite. They are the super-recognizers.
The creepy 1 percent
In 2009, psychological scientist Richard Russell and his colleagues first used the term super-recognizer to describe four participants in a study they conducted. According to the conclusions of the study, “our findings demonstrate the existence of people with exceptionally good face recognition ability and show that the range of face recognition and face perception ability is wider than has been previously acknowledged.”
More recently, Dr. Josh P Davis, a reader in applied psychology at the University of Greenwich in London, is advancing this work. I talked to Davis to find out more about this fascinating field of research. He is, by chance, also one of the most recognizable people I have ever met (a video about him and his work).
According to Davis, approximately 1% of us may be super-recognizers. That friend who recognizes actors across shows? Or the friend who always recognizes old friends after many years? Yup, they might have this memory superpower. Davis’ team has already identified well over 1000 super-recognizers from around the world.
But how do you know whether you are one of these gifted face rememberers? According to Davis “One of the problems is diagnosing super-recognition. Currently researchers have tended to use two main criteria. First, excellent performance on short term face memory tests using photos. Second, extraordinary subjective experiences of real person recognition.” However, it can be difficult to know from lab-based tests how good a particular person is at real-life face remembering, he concedes.
On top of this there seems to be another problem; Most people who think they are super-recognizers are not, and most people who are super-recognizers don’t know it.
And for those who have the superpower, it reportedly can seem like more of a problem than a gift. Bona fide super-recognizers often claim that they need to hide their skill to not seem creepy. Imagine having someone come up to you, saying they recognize you from a coffee shop you visited once, in May, five years ago. Stalker, much? Exactly.
Why do some people easily recognize faces while others frequently make mistakes? According to a team of cognitive neuroscientists from Beijing University, it has little to do with things like intelligence or attention, and more to do with how your brain processes faces.
The team, including Ruosi Wang and colleagues, published a study in 2012 which found that individuals who process faces more as a whole (“holistically”), rather than in pieces (“analytically”), are better at remembering them.
In other words, if you try to remember how someone’s nose, eyes, and ears look, it will be more difficult than taking in the whole face at once. Taking in things at once apparently means the brain registers it as a new object, rather than another nose, and another pair of eyes. However, the study by Wang and colleagues did not look specifically at super-recognizers, so it is unclear how much this explanation can help us understand the particularly gifted.
Davis has looked directly at the brain function of super-recognizers, “some have been tested in our laboratories using EEG and we have found that when make decisions to faces they exhibit different brain activity to controls possessing average-range ability,” but how this difference is relevant to their brain processing is yet unclear.
Davis says that “although super-recognizers all have excellent face memory, they do not necessarily display a consistent pattern of results on different types of cognitive test. They may be a heterogeneous group – not members of a single category. Our research is providing further insight into their capabilities.”
On the downside this ability can make for creepy small talk, but on the upside this super-power can make for super-police.
“My team started testing super-recognizers in the Metropolitan Police just before the London Riots in 2011,” says Davis. He says that super-recognizers “can sometimes recognize suspects in disguise, in poor quality images and they do this after a surprisingly long delay. London super-recognizer police officers have identified thousands of suspects, with high proportions eventually convicted (although based on more than just identification evidence). If police forces worldwide identified their own super-recognizers, it is likely that similar successes would follow.
What’s next for the team? “One of our current lab-based studies is examining the ability of police super-recognizers and controls to identify people in crowded CCTV footage.” Increasing the complexity and realism of the tasks participants are asked to do in his studies, helps him fine-tune how to make this research most useful. Overall, he claims that “there is no doubt in my mind that this research can have a direct positive impact on homeland security, border control and policing.”
Want to know whether you are a super-recognizer? Over 2.9 million members of the public have taken Davis’ could you be a super-recognizer online test. A few were even based in Antarctica.
Maybe you’ll find that you belong to this elite group of super-humans. Or maybe, like me, you will remain part of the I-always-forget-people’s-faces-and-it’s-so-awkward group.