Face Value

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: May 31 2009, 06:21am hrs
In a study published recently, Harvard scientists coined the term super-recognizers to describe people like Ms Jarett who have an uncanny ability to recognize and remember faces. The brains ability to identify faces varies from person to person: while a small minority are unable to recognize others at all, the super-recognizers have an extraordinary talent for recollection, occupying the extreme end of the face-recognition spectrum, said Richard Russell, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Harvard University and lead author of the paper, published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

The study tested four 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 four 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 four 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.

This suggests we dont all see faces the same way, and we dont all have the same abilities, Dr Russell said. It occurs along a continuum. Assessing this ability could be important for selecting security personnel or determining the trustworthiness of an eyewitness, he added.

Super-recognizers appear to be the opposites of prosopagnosics, people who suffer from face blindness, sometimes even failing to recognize immediate family members.

Prosopagnosia, a term that combines the Greek words prosopon, or face, and agnosia, or ignorance, is believed to affect 2% of the population and can be congenital or the result of a brain injury or a stroke.