This week there was a programme on TV about The Boy who can’t forget (see here), about people who remember everything. They’re not the only ones with special recall. There are also people who don’t forget faces, they recognise anyone they have ever met (see Caroline Williams ‘Face savers’, New Scientist, September 15). It has been estimated that about 2% of the population have such super abilities for faces – about the same percentage as people who experience face blindness (prosopagnosia) which is the inability to recognise faces.
Research suggests that thesesuper recognisers don’t have especially superior memories nor are they better than average at object recognition. It appears they just have a special talent for recognising faces, which could be very useful in the police force. For example after the recent riots in London, police had to sift through thousands of fuzzy CCTV photos trying to recognise suspects. Super recognisers found it relatively easy to identify suspects in the CCTV footage.
The study of super recognisers can shed light on the way we process faces, and may even help understanding prosopagnosia. It seems that super recognisers use their brain differently, processing the whole face rather than individual components whereas the opposite is true for prosopagnosics. Studies using local and global letters are used to test this whole versus individual processing (see right). Participants are asked to read the large letter and end do this more slowly in the incongruent condition shown on the right. Prosopagnosics don’t show this slowing down, possibly because they don’t process at a global level (see page 43 of the A2 Complete Companion). Research is currently underway to see what happens when super recognisers try this task.