Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

Never forgetting a face

A group of faces
From a quick glance would you remember these people again?

By Pam Rutherford

Many of us struggle sometimes to put a name to a face, but what if you could recognise someone many years after seeing them for a moment?

You know the woman crossing the street. But where from?

Ah, she was one of the volunteers staffing the polling station where you voted several years before. You probably saw her for a couple of minutes. Several years ago.

Sound like the kind of face you would place immediately?

Super Recognisers is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 25 January from 2100-2130 GMT
Or you can listen again here

It is for Jennifer. She is a "super recogniser", someone with a significantly above average ability to place a face.

In fact, she can almost never forget a face. She first noticed something might be unusual on holiday with her family when she spotted a very minor actor on a plane. Her family were disbelieving but she was proved right.

But it really hit home at college that she was different from those around her.

"I'd meet so many people in the first few weeks and I'd remember everyone no matter how brief the encounter. I'd then meet them at a party and they wouldn't remember me. I'd think: 'That person is SO fake, I can't believe they're pretending they don't remember me when we met for 30 seconds in the cafeteria three weeks ago.'"

Chance meeting

It doesn't matter if years have lapsed since seeing them.

She describes seeing someone she saw a few times as child, on the subway, now over 20 years older with greying hair and dreadlocks and knowing exactly who she was.

"People can get older but their faces look the same to me," says Jennifer. "They don't look different to me whether they're children or adults. I don't know why my mind is able to make the leap."

It sounds like a neat party trick, or perhaps something useful in business, but it may mean more than that to scientists.

Blurred crowd
Super recognisers can even spot blurred faces

Jennifer's ability may help scientists who are investigating people in the opposite position, those who suffer from the condition prosopagnosia, popularly known as face blindness.

Claire, a 49-year-old mother of four, has the condition.

She contracted viral encephalitis in May 2004 and as well as severe memory loss she has struggled to recognise faces.

"I was discharged home to a family I couldn't recognise, I had to believe they were my family. I had to believe Ed was my husband and tell myself he was the man I loved and that the children were my children."

Claire continues to have problems with faces. She still can't pick out which are her children if they're with their friends. But she describes a recent triumph - picking out her husband Ed in a crowd. Yet she still has to use different strategies to recognise friends and family.

Even her own reflection can catch her out if it takes her by surprise.

Challenging condition

Learning to live with the condition and work around it takes effort, and life remains difficult for Claire.

"It's not easy trying to re-find myself in what feels like someone else's life and the more sociable I'm becoming, the more challenging the prosopagnosia is. We take all the knowledge and information you get from someone's face for granted.

Can be caused by brain injury or illness
But many have another variety from birth
Brain scan research being done on those with condition

"You don't think about it how you'd feel if all that information was whipped off you. I wouldn't wish it on anybody'

It may not be the case that there are only three groups of face recognisers, those with prosopagnosia, those who are "normal" and then the super recognisers.

Instead, there may be a spectrum of face recognition, says Brad Duchaine, of the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience and University College London's prosopagnosia research centre.

People like Claire have acquired prosopagnosia from damage to the brain. But there is another kind often less severe is called "developmental" prosopagnosia where someone has had the condition all their life.

And the condition is surprisingly common. As many as one in 50 people will be prosopagnosic but often they won't know.

And at the other end of the spectrum scientists are beginning to study super recognisers, often establishing contact because of publicity about prosopagnosia.

They are just starting to understand the brains of the super recognisers by scanning their neural networks and working out what might be structurally or functionally different about their grey matter.

On standard tests of facial recognition, the super recognisers usually get full marks, but even if the faces are severely blurred they still get near to full marks, says recognition expert Prof Richard Russell, of Gettysburg College.

Chance encounters are remembered for years

"One of the most exciting implications of this work is that while we assume we all see the same things, this work suggests that at least in terms of looking at faces we don't see the same things.

"Super recognisers are looking at the world in a different way than other people and it could be that this isn't limited to looking at faces but other aspects of seeing the world. And we think it's going to be a very helpful tool in helping understanding of how the mind and the brain work."

While not suffering difficulties, like those with prosopagnosia, the super recognisers sometimes still choose to modify their behaviour.

Jennifer admits lying when asked whether she has met people before. Some would find it unsettling that someone remembers their face and name after a momentary encounter many years before.

Just walking around in the city can produce a tissue of recognition.

"It's not necessarily every single person who's walking by me in a rush of people on the street but if I notice someone then I will remember them.

"I really don't have to have an important interaction with people."

Significantly, even if the faces have changed considerably they are still recognisable.

And certain sectors of society should try to avoid the super recognisers.

"I do always tell people that I think I would be the perfect witness for a crime," Jennifer says.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I wonder if the mechanism for super-recognition is similar to that of photographic memory or that of perfect pitch (the ability to recall the exact pitch of a musical sound). I have perfect pitch, and I too thought I was not unlike anybody else until I was a senior in high school. According to Daniel Leviton's book, This Is Your Brain On Music, only 1 in 40,000 people have perfect pitch. Is there a similar statistic for super-recognizers?
Tom Draughon, Ashland, Wisconsin, US

I too have prosopagnosia and for me it is also associated with facial expressions... and weirdest of all with hand gestures and textures. It is an enormous relief to hear I am not alone. I too thought everyone saw the way I do, until my mother slapped me for what she called "being cheeky" and "lying" after I recognised an apparent stranger I'd seen in the local swimming pool... 11 years ago, when I was aged four. It confused me no end. I have given up trying to remember faces AND hands: too time consuming. Yet, it is not, for me, a question of remembering at all - more like instant recall. Now, I'm content to just see and forget - whatever that is.
Eustacia Vye, Invercargill, New Zealand

I have heard that both Bill Clinton and George W Bush have the ability to meet a person once and recognize that person years later. I wonder if the ability to recognize faces affects what careers people choose and the other way around. Before I started teaching I was terrible with names and faces. In a few short years I have become quite good at remembering a few hundred new names and faces.
Ben Merritt, Los Angeles

I, too, have the facility to remember faces for years having seen someone only briefly. It may be someone I have met or an actor appearing in a film from, say, the 40s and then seeing them again on TV now and being able to recognise them and recall the first instance. As a child, I always thought everyone did this and only realised this was not so when I was 30 and being introduced to a relative I had seen only once before when I was 5. I correctly identified them before their name was given and it was the reaction of family that made me realise I was a little bit different with respect to recall. As Jennifer does, I also pretend it doesn't happen sometimes as some people can be a little uncomfortable with it. My husband is at the other end of the scale. He can meet someone today and fail to recognise them tomorrow. He also has terrible trouble remembering names and putting names to faces. I spend hours describing who is who for him. Once he has met someone several times, it's no problem, but frustrating until their face registers.
Christina, Parkstone

I have had loss of facial recognition come upon me as part of migraine aura on a couple of occasions. For the sufferer it is bewildering, especially when you know that you should know the people you are looking at and they look like strangers.
Kate McDonnell, Barnstaple, UK

Last year at university, I had a teaching assistant from Switzerland who held a recitation class every Friday. There were at least 40 people in the class, and he was able to look at our faces, say our names and mark us down as present on only the second meeting. There were only two or three individuals he had trouble recalling. It was unbelievable.
Adam, Rochester, NY, United States

Not faces, but I am the same with numbers and characters... once someone tells me their telephone number or post code or if I see their registration number plate. I seem to remember it instantly and then maybe years later I can recall the number. It can be quite freaky for them when I suddenly come out with the info.
Mr C, Oxford

I am also a super recogniser. When I was a child I thought everyone had this same ability to recognise faces. Eventually, I realised that this was not the case. All through school, and part of the way through college, people considered me weird or creepy because of it. Halfway through college I finally gave up and just started pretending that I didn't recognise faces anymore. Some people can be extremely cruel if you are in any way different than what they believe to be "normal". Now, I just don't pay any attention to faces. I always look away whenever possible.
Lawrence, Saint Simons Island, US

Personal experience suggests that I may have a mild form of recognition. Having worked and lived in several countries, I have occasionally seen a face that is immediately recognized as "Jane Doe or Joe Blow" from back in the US - someone with whom I have had many interfacings. I have wondered why and concluded that there must be only so many different combinations and permutations of the way a face can be put together. And since my own experience seems to be biased in favor of "recognizing" women, I suppose there may be a hormonal stimulant somehow involved.
Richard E Hartman, Bandung, West Java

I am not gifted with this skill, but my husband Doug is astounding and absolutely never forgets a face. He is a musician and will be speaking to someone at a show and say to them "You were at our show at (so and so bar) in Brooklyn". This conversation will take place two years later in some random location like Kentucky. It is really odd. I always wished that there was a way he could make a career of it.
Stacia, Los Angeles, CA, US

I too, have the ability to super recognize. It does get spooky sometimes, however, when you ask someone how they like their new hair style or if they still had a piece of jewellery that you saw the last time you saw them, and they, shocked and slightly creeped out, of course, admit that you haven't seen them for the greater part of a decade. I'm that way with a lot of things. I just remember. Still, as refreshing and usually entertaining a heightened memory can be, sometimes, I wish for the ability to forget.
Andrew Schmeisser, Ames, US

I thought it was a bit strange that I always remembered peoples faces and them not recognise mine!, and I too thought people were rude for not acknowledging an "Hello" I made to them when I might have last seen them for an "instant" several years ago. I always seem to recall not only what they look like but also what they were wearing and what hairstyle they had last time we met. I find it hard to explain - its like the image in front of me splits into two, on one side is a memory image of the last time I saw them and on the right side the actual person in front of me and it becomes a task of "spotting the difference" between the two. If I am at an event and see a "face" I recognise I can't relax until I have worked out where and when I recognise them - which has been embarrassing on more than one occasion for either party. I often used to say that I wished I could remember facts and figures in the same way that I remember faces.
Dorian Tompkins, Kettering

I think it's definitely a spectrum. I'm mildly prosopagnosic - not as badly as Claire, but I have to rely heavily on clues like hairstyle, and if someone's hair changes dramatically or I'm shown a photo of them with the hair hidden I often can't recognise them. And if I meet someone in the street, out of context, I often have no idea who they are until they mention a name or other identifying detail.
Rachael, Cambridge, UK

I'm with Rachel: I have known for years that I'd be a terrible witness for the prosecution. In a line-up I could definitely eliminate many of the candidates, but about the remaining one or two I could only say "these could be the guy, it's the right kind of face, but then so many other people have that kind of face too". Usually when a woman changes her hair colour or style I utterly fail to recognize her, unless I've known her well for a year or more. And several times I've introduced myself to someone at church, only to be told "Yes, we met two weeks ago."
On the other hand I make surprising connections. Very often I notice upon being introduced to someone new that he looks much like so-and-so back in Pennsylvania, even if it's not his whole face but just his eyes, or his smile, or his mannerisms or way of talking. And I seem to recognize minor actors better than others, saying "oh, he was in such-and-such a movie that we saw five years ago...". This sounds like the very opposite of prosopagnosia, but there it is. I suppose that, too, is a clue to how we recognize faces.
Bob Bridges, US

I am able to recognise people who I have met in the same way as Jennifer. I recently surprised a lady to whom I said "you're Jane H______" and the last time we met was 41 years ago when were both six and swimming with our families at our school. I've done the same to a couple of opposition hockey players who I haven't seen for 30+ years when we were at school together.
Rob Austen, Bristol

I had a stroke a few years ago and ever since, I recognise everybody. It's like deja vu in a way I suppose. I hate walking around places that I know well, and keep my head down so that I don't have to meet people's eyes. My stroke straddled the temporal lobe and the occipital lobe. When I've asked doctors about why I recognise everyone, they shrug their shoulders and say "We don't know enough about how the brain works to give you an answer." Doesn't help that I was only 29 when I had the stroke, (I am 33 now). Apparently, young people don't have strokes, so there isn't a lot of help if you do.
Faye, Milton Keynes

It's definitely a spectrum. I wouldn't call myself a "super recogniser", but I hardly ever forget a face. It happens a lot with minor actors with bit parts in films and TV, sometimes years apart. I also instantly place people I haven't seen since kindergarten. To balance things out though, I'm absolutely rubbish with people's names when I first meet them. You could literally say to me "Hi, my name is Mike. What's my name?" And you'd be met with a blank stare.
Acho, Lagos, Nigeria

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