22 Nov 2020

Are you a facial 'super recogniser'?

From Sunday Morning, 8:30 am on 22 November 2020

Ever spotted someone and thought to yourself ‘where do I know that person from?’. If so you may be a super facial recogniser.

Portrait of a young smiling nurse

Photo: 123RF

Psychologists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) are hoping a new Face Test will help unearth more top performers in facial recognition, known as super-recognisers.

Super recognisers have the extraordinary ability to recall the faces of people they may have only encountered in the most fleeting situations, often many years before.

Cognitive psychologist and researcher at UNSW, Dr James Dunn, told Jim Mora super recognisers make up the top one to two percent of the population.

“Most of us will have some degree of ability in face recognition, particularly I think for recognising the people we know very well.”

He says to be considered a super facial recogniser, his team had to make their research test as hard as possible.

“We found on previous tests people would score maybe 100 percent, on our test we’re happy to say super recognisers only score 70 percent or higher which gives us a lot of scope to identify the best of the best within that group.”

Most super recognisers only score just over 70 percent on the UNSW test, but only 11 scored over 90 percent and no one has scored 100 percent.

Dr Dunn says the study is still trying to understand what’s going on inside a super recogniser’s brain when they spot a face they know.

“When we started looking at this question we started finding that each super recogniser has their own unique strategy to identifying faces and that they weren’t all exactly the same as each other.

The research does suggest that certain brain structures are more active in face recognisers.

Dr Dunn says one of the things they are sure of is it’s genetic.

“These skills are coded into their DNA and it’s not something you learn, but one of the things we think is why super recognisers all do it differently is that they all pay attention to different cues in a person’s face to identify that person.

“So, each one may have their own preferred diagnostic cue that they use to recognise somebody and it’s not always exactly the same thing.”

While they are good at remembering faces, some are not as good at remembering why it’s familiar, at least not immediately Dr Dunn says.

But it’s something they love to do, he says.

“People will come to them with their face recognition problems, ‘who’s this person, where do I know them from?’ they love that, ‘where have I seen this celebrity before?’. I find they do get a little more frustrated with the average person if they can’t work out where they know the person from.

“I’ve heard a case of a super recogniser going on holiday and at the airport spotted someone who was familiar but couldn’t remember why and it wasn’t until a few weeks into the trip after thinking about it, basically the whole time, that they actually worked out where that person was familiar.”

The test is free to do and can be done here.