Never forget a face? There’s a chance you might be part of a tiny segment of the population known as “super recognizers.” (Photo: University of Greenwich)
Super recognizers have an “exceptional” ability to recognize faces and can often recognize a person years after catching just a fleeting glimpse of their face, says super recognizer expert Josh P. Davis, Ph.D., a senior lecturer of psychology at the U.K.’s University of Greenwich.
But they’re not easy to find: Davis tells Yahoo Health that super recognizers make up “probably less than one percent of the population.”
Davis has developed a new online test to help people determine whether they have this extraordinary ability. The test, which takes five minutes to complete, involves looking at different faces for eight seconds before trying to ID a face in a lineup of eight. People who score above a 10 on the test may be a super recognizer.
Super recognizers are currently used in the London police department to help identify criminals in often-fuzzy CCTV footage, Davis says, and he’s hoping his test will help him find more so that he and his team and further investigate the phenomenon.
While scientists have been able to track down and study some super recognizers, there are still a lot of unanswered questions around them.
Despite conducting several studies on super recognizers, Richard Russell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Gettysburg College, tells Yahoo Health that “we don’t know” why some people have such phenomenal facial recognition skills, adding, “this is an important but unanswered question.”
Brad Duchaine, Ph.D., an associate professor at Dartmouth College who studies cognitive neuroscience tells Yahoo Health that “genetic good luck” may be at play, but says, like other experts, he just isn’t sure.
Here’s what scientists do know: Super recognizers are a legitimate phenomenon, and there is some preliminary evidence that they have stronger-than-average visual memory for other kinds of objects and images (i.e. their super-skills may extend beyond remembering faces). For example, Duchaine points out that there’s new data that suggests they’re good at recognizing cars.
Super recognizers may even try to downplay their skills in social situations, says Duchaine: “Many super recognizers find their recognition is so good that have to refrain from letting people they only know in passing that they recognize them, because it comes off as strange.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be possible to train yourself to be a super recognizer, but Russell says scientists are currently working on ways to train people with very poor face recognition memory (also known as prosopagnosics) to recognize faces better. “Those efforts may shed light on how to train people to be even better than average,” he says.
Duchaine’s team is also investigating whether super recognizers use particular strategies to remember faces, and whether those strategies can be developed in people with normal face recognition like the rest of us.
So, if you’re terrible at remembering faces, there might be hope for you.
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