face.jpgFace blindness, or prosopagnosia, affects about 2% of the population. Prosopagnosia comes from the Greek: prosopon, or face, and agnosia, or ignorance. Face blindness refers to the inability to remember faces. At the extreme it can include the inability to recognize immediate family members.

“Super recognizers” is a phrase coined by Harvard researchers in a study published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review in April 2009, and refers to those who have almost a supernatural ability to remember faces. The ability to remember faces is a different type of memory than that required to memorize facts, figures, or even names.

Like many things, facial recognition occurs across a broad distribution curve of ability. “(W)e don’t all see faces the same way and we don’t all have the same abilities,” according to Dr. Richard Russell, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard and lead author. Assessing facial recognition abilities “could be important for selecting security personnel or determining the trustworthiness of an eyewitness.” (The New York Times, ”A Memory for Faces, Extreme Version,” May 25, 2009)

I’ve always known that I tend toward the face blindness end of the scale. I remember standing in line a year or two after college and not recognizing an old high school friend next to me until he spoke. It was the voice I recognized, not the face. At law school parties, my girlfriend would whisper in my ear, giving me both names and context, things like “This is Jim, you sat behind him in Con Law.”

I tend to avoid cocktail parties or receptions, as they are like social mine fields to me. Too many people I should by any reasonable measure recognize, but don’t. Asking forgiveness on where and when we met works a time or two but more than that people often feel put off, enough being enough. So generally I wing it or duck it. When I first came across the concept of face blindness, it was nice to be able to put a label on it and to know I am not the only one.


Photo caption: Two eyes, a nose. In one exercise, subjects learn unfamiliar faces, top row. The face positions are moved or the images blurred, and the subjects are tested.

A Memory for Faces, Extreme Version
Jennifer Jarett never forgets a face.
The New York Times
Published: May 25, 2009

A few years ago, shortly after she moved to New York City, one of her friends pointed out a young man standing on the other side of the room at a party. Ms. Jarett took one look and said, “Oh, I know who he is — I went to Hebrew school with him in fourth grade.”

At the time, Ms. Jarett, who is now 38, had not seen the boy in nearly two decades, since they were both children.

In a study published in April, Harvard scientists coined the term “super-recognizers” to describe people like Ms. Jarett who have an uncanny ability to recognize and remember faces. The brain’s 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.

Dr. Russell assessed the recognition abilities of four subjects, including Ms. Jarett, who identified themselves as having a knack for remembering faces. In one exam, they were asked to identify celebrities through 56 photographs taken before they achieved fame or when they were children.

In another, the subjects were asked to learn to recognize unfamiliar faces and then to pick those faces from lineups that included profile shots, cropped photographs and other images obscured by visual noise or snow.

All four subjects had nearly perfect scores on the tests, far higher than those of control subjects, the researchers found.

“This suggests we don’t all see faces the same way, and we don’t 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 “faceblindness,” 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 percent of the population and can be congenital or the result of a brain injury or a stroke.

Facial recognition is both extremely complex and vitally essential, said Dr. Marlene Behrmann, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Dr. Behrmann has found that in prosopagnosics, structural fibers connecting the subregions of the brain involved in facial recognition are compromised.

“These regions are optimized for something that is really important and that, evolutionarily, is perhaps the most important thing we do,” she said. “You’ve go to know friend from foe really quickly. It’s crucial.”

Ms. Jarett, who scored the highest of all the volunteers in Dr. Russell’s study, is the kind of person who easily picks out celebrities in a crowd. Walking down the street, she recognizes the likes of Soon-Yi Previn even before noticing Woody Allen beside her.

“Even if I’m not looking out for a familiar face, something jumps out at me. It’s almost like people have an aura about them, something that draws me over to look at them,” she said. For years, she said, she thought people who did not remember her after a brief casual introduction were being rude.

“My friends joke that I’m a stalker — I used to remember so many details about everyone,” she said. “People get weirded out.”