While I am terrible at remembering names, I thought that I was pretty good at remembering faces. The main evidence that I had for that is that I often notice resemblances between unrelated people that others miss and when I watch films, I often recognize minor actors that I have seen before in other films.
It turns out that there are some people who are super-recognizers of faces. This quality is the opposite prosopagnosia or face blindness where people have difficulty recognizing familiar faces, even their own, a condition that became widely familiar after Oliver Sacks published his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
In 2009, a team of neuroscientists from Harvard did one of the first studies of super-recognisers. In it, they looked at just four people who claimed to have an unusually good ability to recognise faces.
All four subjects told the researchers about instances when they’d recognised practical strangers: family members they hadn’t seen for decades or actors they’d glimpsed once in an ad and then seen again in a movie. They felt like there was something wrong with them.
Research suggests that super-recognising is fundamentally different from memory, and isn’t a skill that can be sharpened with training, like some aspects of traditional memorisation can.
It turns out that the numbers of people who have this ability is really quite tiny and so researchers have developed a quick online test that they said may be able to identify potential ‘super recognizers’ of faces to see if they can increase the pool of such people so that they can investigate it more thoroughly.
Given my sense that I may be a super-recognizer, I took the test which consists of showing you a face for about 5 seconds and then asking you to pick that face out a lineup of faces. There are 14 such sequences and if you score at least 10, you may be one of those people with this ability
Alas, I got only nine right, which means that I had a highly inflated opinion of my facial recognition abilities. Annoyed, I waited a day so that I would forget my previous responses, and tried again. The items in the test were the same as before but this time I got just eight right so there is clearly no hope for me. Maybe some of the readers of this blog are better.