Gene Expression

Superfreaks about the face

A few years ago I commented a fair amount on the topic of prosopagnosia, face blindness. Turns out that ~2% of the population can’t really recognize faces, and this is a cryptic trait as many of these individuals have developed compensatory tendencies so that people don’t know. Not only that, but there seems to be a strong genetic component so that it runs in families. At the time I was fascinated by this because it made me wonder at how much more “cryptic” variation there could be in the human population. It seems that face recognition is such a basic and universal “competency” that it is hard to fathom that 1 out of 50 humans would lack the capability.

Now the same team has come out with new research reporting that there are individuals at the other end, those who are extremely good at recognizing and remembering faces. Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability:

We tested 4 people who claimed to have significantly better than ordinary face recognition ability. Exceptional ability was confirmed in each case. On two very different tests of face recognition, all 4 experimental subjects performed beyond the range of control subject performance. They also scored significantly better than average on a perceptual discrimination test with faces. This effect was larger with upright than with inverted faces, and the 4 subjects showed a larger “inversion effect” than did control subjects, who in turn showed a larger inversion effect than did developmental prosopagnosics. This result indicates an association between face recognition ability and the magnitude of the inversion effect. Overall, these “super-recognizers” are about as good at face recognition and perception as developmental prosopagnosics are bad. 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.

Here’s a figure showing how the three categories relate to each other:


Here’s an elaboration from the discussion:

Most developmental prosopagnosics we have tested in our laboratories score around 2-3 SDs below normal on the CFMT short form. In comparison, 3 super-recognizers scored around 2 SDs above the mean on the CFMT long form. Similarly, on the CFPT, effect sizes were very similar for the comparisons between prosopagnosics and controls, and between super-recognizers and controls. In both face recognition and face perception, the super-recognizers are about as good as many developmental prosopagnosics are bad. This suggests that many cases of developmental prosopagnosia may represent the low end of normal face recognition ability rather than a qualitatively different kind of face processing.

In ScienceDaily they say:

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.”

Ah, good point. But here’s the thing: this sort of ability almost certainly likely tracks other abilities. Traits which exhibit a lot of normal variation, along the Bell Curve, usually don’t have strong fitness implications across their states. That is, if the trait has very low fitness in a particular state that state is purged. The variation is probably due then to other factors, from drift to the G-matrix.

In any case, some of the anecdotes these people tell about their inability to never forget a face are straight out of science fiction. Though I’m not sure if remembering everyone is actually that convenient, it seems like a form of mental clutter. But what do I know? I’m a neurotypical on this trait.


  1. #1 Vasha
    May 21, 2009

    One time, a woman came up to me in a bookstore and greeted me; I just looked at her in bafflement because she seemed to be a total stranger. Then she reminded me where we’d met: we’d had two brief business interactions two and a half years previously. Even knowing that, she didn’t look familiar, though I did recall the circumstances of our meeting. I’m still boggled that she recognized me.

  2. #2 Kelli
    May 21, 2009

    I was just thinking about an ex of mine and wondering if he might have had Asperger’s. In a group of people, he was unable to recognize his Mother’s face. He also lacked empathy and the ability to understand his own emotions.

    I believe in his case it was a childhood issue, but this is an interesting article. Stunning to me to see the other side. I never forget a face. Names, however – another story.

  3. #3 pconroy
    May 21, 2009

    I’m exactly the same, I never forget a face, but have great difficulty remembering names, and even regularly say the wrong name even for people I know well – like calling my daughter my sister’s name.

    When I was 10 yo, I spent a few weeks in a Summer camp with a few hundred other 10 yo kids. Years later in Dublin, I would regularly bump into these people in college or on the streets, and to a person they had no idea who I was, but could confirm that they had gone to that summer camp as kids. Most were very surprised that I could recognize them. One guy had been fairly small and skinny as a 10 yo, but in his early 20’s was over 6′ 3″, and sported a beard and glasses.

    I would definitely say I’m in the super-recognizers category. The funny thing is that my brother is great on names and dates, but almost certainly has face blindness. I remember after going on a few dates with a new girlfriend, whom he was very interested in, he wasn’t able to say what color her eyes or hair were?! All he could say was, “I don’t think she was Blonde haired, but I’m not sure”…

  4. #4 razib
    May 21, 2009

    i’m good at faces and the facts attached to the faces, but i have issues with names.

  5. #5 Caledonian
    May 22, 2009

    That’s interesting, because you’d think a name would just be another fact.

    What is about the status of names that causes our brains to treat them differently?

  6. #6 Salamander
    May 23, 2009

    I’m pretty bad at recognizing people. If I see someone out of context, I tend not not recognize them at all. For example, running into a neighbor at the supermarket; seeing my daughter’s friend’s parent at the gym instead of at the bus stop, etc.. If it’s someone I know pretty well, I’ll recognize them, but acquaintances don’t seem to really register with me.

    Likewise, if I see someone whom I know from my kids’ school without their children, I often have no idea who they are. And if I see fellow dog owners without their dogs, I am baffled — I realize on some level that I do know them, but have no idea HOW I know them.

    I’m also terrible at recognizing actors in different movies, unless they are really distinctive or well-known.

    The funny thing is I recognize people’s dogs really well. I can see a random golden retriever running thru the neighborhood and recognize him as that dog I saw at the beach the other day, as opposed to the other golden retriever with the stockier body and squarer face that lives down the street…

    I don’t really remember names very well either. Though that is mostly because I tend to not really pay attention when people introduce themselves.

  7. #7 pconroy
    May 26, 2009


    If I had to guess, I’d say that face recognition must be associated with the Right Hemisphere – visual processing – while names are associated with language processing in the left hemisphere.

    I am so bad with names, that I have adopted strategy of always calling my wife either darling, sweetie, honey etc., as I know only too well from past relationships that calling a loved one an ex’s name at the wrong time, is treated as a crime that can never really be forgiven?!

    Meanwhile when I put myself through college and worked as a doorman/bellman in an upscale hotel, I would constantly detect celebrities checking in under false names or simple disguises – so much so that the Front Desk Managers would ask me to vet incoming guests, in case they missed a celeb – and forgot to offer an upgrade or fawn over them etc.

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