At the risk of showing my age as well as publicly humiliating myself, I must confess that when I think about talent and what distinguishes it from skill, Harry Potter and his seemingly inborn command of Quidditch are what first spring to mind. To clarify for those of you who may have lived under a rock for the last decade and a half, Quidditch is a highly competitive sport enjoyed by young wizards in the fantastical world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. As if embedded in his very DNA, Harry’s athleticism is something he effortlessly taps into, rather than painstakingly acquires. But perhaps my train of thought isn’t so ridiculous after all, as raw talent often seems to possess a certain magic, cropping up as it does in the unlikeliest of places – sometimes defying both reason and expectation.
Is it possible that I, too, could possess some untapped, hidden talent?
Last week, as I prepared for work, I entertained the thought. Like any average morning, I was futzing around my apartment when the news caught my attention. Super-recognizers, I heard the reporter say, are a subset of the population with an uncanny ability to recognize faces, and so good at spotting mugs, these muggles have been employed by the London Metropolitan Police to identify criminals obscured in grainy CCTV footage. An indicator that you might be a super-recognizer, continued the report, is if you are more likely to recognize other people than the other way around. My ears perked up. Since I was a small child, I’ve been exceptionally good at remembering faces – even those of strangers or people I’ve met in passing. Most notably, I recall at 12 bumping into a friend of my father’s I’d only seen in a few photographs. When I said hello to the familiar-looking man, my mom and I were walking into a coffee shop…in another state.
I have a superpower, I concluded. Deep breaths. And I might be going to Hogwarts.
But what did it mean to be a super-recognizer anyway?
“They score higher than average on tests in which they are asked to memorize previously unfamiliar faces, suggesting that they learn faces more quickly than average,” says Dr. Josh Davis, a senior lecturer at the University of Greenwich.
Richard Russell of Gettysburg College tells me that he, along with two other researchers, first came to identify super-recognition back in 2009 while studying prosopagnosics – people who might otherwise be described as face blind. The famed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks fell into this category; Sacks didn’t know the face of his assistant of more than several decades. Russell explains that it was in hypothesizing that some people may be on the other end of this spectrum – that is, certain individuals might be especially gifted – that he began to seek out possible super-recognizers.
Enthusiasm for the subject soon swept across the Pond, where two years after Russell’s initial investigation, Dr. Ashok Jansari of the University of London led the largest study on face recognition in the United Kingdom. Over a three-month period, 700 visitors to London’s Science Museum were tested to see where they fell on the bell curve, and in support of Russell’s early findings, around 2% of them turned out to be exceptional.
But when it comes to understanding these deviations, there remains a lot to be learned, and devising tests to better measure ability has become a large part of the effort. One of the more recent tests Jansari has developed was hosted by a Dutch psychology website, and though over 5,000 people participated, greater reach only offers a small piece of the super-recognition puzzle. Click here to take one of Dr. Jansari’s tests.
For one thing, says Davis, we remember faces in the context of real life, making tests based on photos and videos not the best indicators of a person’s ability. “One of the other problems,” continues Davis, “is that one of our tests uses faces of black and white ethnic people.” In countries like China, he explains, there are fewer black and white populations, and because we are better at recognizing our own ethnicity or those we come into contact with most frequently, these tests are more difficult for certain participants.
Another question is just how much of this ability is dictated by genetics.
“Researchers have spent some time trying to devise training schemes to improve face recognition,” says Davis. “As far as I am aware, all have been unsuccessful.”
So, if super-recognition can’t be learned, one might conclude that it’s largely a question of nature. And one might be right. In a recent study led by Nicholas Shakeshaft and Robert Plomin of King’s College London, it was found that over 60% of face recognition comes down to heritability. Though it was the first study of its kind, involving 2,000 twins in the United Kingdom, it seems to confirm what researchers like Jansari have long suspected.
“I am actually an identical twin, and my twin is also way above average on face memory,” says the neuropsychologist. “I’m on the cusp of super-recognition, and our younger brother is officially a super-recognizer.”
Evidence – both empirical and anecdotal – that face recognition is linked to genetics might lead one to wonder if there is perhaps some kind of adaptive advantage.
“As we started living as groups rather than as individuals, there would have been an evolutionary advantage for recognizing those people who were part of our tribe,” Jansari explains. And while we can recognize others by their voice, style, and gait, “the quickest and most reliable way is from the structure within the face,” says Jansari.
But what about me? Am I or am I not a super-recognizer?
The first online test I took rendered some exciting results, revealing I scored higher than nine out of ten people. But much to my disappointment, I wouldn’t breeze through the next set of tests supplied by the University of Greenwich, as they were markedly more difficult, and though I had a high enough score to move on to the next round, it seemed my fatigue from a poor night’s rest was going to cost me.
After completing all three tests, I got my results. 35 out of 40 and then two 33’s.
Not bad, I thought, but what would Dr. Davis think of my scores? Could I abandon this blog and maybe my life as a journalist to assume a post with the CIA?
“Your scores are better than average, but certainly not in the super-recognizer level.”
But what about my fatigue, I protested.
“When we first tested police super-recognizers some had been on night shift, and over a series of six tests their performance reduced more than some of our other participants,” explained Davis. But the jury’s still out on whether or not a person’s attention span has any impact on one’s ability to recognize faces.
Jansari is more direct, however. “So, I’m sorry to say that while having had more rest could improve your performance overall, it is unlikely to turn you into a super-recognizer.”
Fine. Maybe I’ll simply dress up like one for Halloween.