The Brain

What Exactly Is A Super-Recognizer?

Super-recognizers are the heroes you never knew existed. They skulk in the shadows, fighting crime one person at a time by being really, really good at remembering a face of a dangerous individual – someone they’ve never met – for years at a time.

The work of experts investigating the phenomenon regularly appears in the news, and today is no exception to this. So what exactly is a “super-recognizer?”

The definition of this ability is quite nebulous at present, but it generally defines people who literally never forget a face. This is a rather colloquial saying, but no more than about 1 percent of the population is thought to qualify as a super-recognizer.

It means that you can pick out faces from a busy crowd and recall almost all of them years later. During a chance encounter with just one of them, you will instantly remember seeing that person’s face. It means that encounters with what many consider to be complete strangers turn out to be anything but.

This ability was arguably first publicized in 2009 when a team of neuroscientists from Harvard University first documented it in just a handful of people. Since then, the search for other super-recognizers has stepped up a gear or two, and law enforcement agencies have, understandably, desired to poach a few.

A piece appearing in the New Yorker back in August of this year describes their ascendance into the scientific mainstream with typical aplomb. Right now, London’s Metropolitan Police have a specialized unit dedicated to the phenomenon.

Peering at the most low-resolution, giant pixel-covered images, these remarkable people can identify a villainous rogue based on the memory of a photograph they had seen of the person years earlier. No computerized system can yet match their powers of recognition.

These people have a remarkable visual memory, not just a powerful memory in general. A recent study on two “memory champions” found them lacking in the facial recall department, for example. The researchers concluded that the abilities of super-recognizers may be to a certain extent hard-wired into the brain, rather than learned skills.

There’s a chance that the key could lie in something called the fusiform face area. As reported by Business Insider, people with damage to this area often experience the antithesis of super-recognizer’s abilities, in that they have immense difficulty remembering what the faces of friends and family look like – or even their own, in some cases.

If you’re wondering if you may indeed be a super-recognizer, then there are tests you can take with the University of Greenwich or Bournemouth University right now. All you have to do is sign up and see for yourself.

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