Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Are You A Super-Recognizer?

Most of us have had this awkward experience: met someone for the first time, shook hands, got to know his name, went to the lavatory, came back and poof! Oh hi have we met before?

How good are you in remembering, or recognizing faces?
Image: Scienceblogs.com
Facial recognition is an important part of our lives, because without it we would probably have no friends. Even today, police still rely on facial composite sketched based on description by victims to identify potential suspect. Last month when I was travelling to China, the immigration officer took a hard, cold look at my face, and then at the photo in my passport, and asked me to reenact that smile I had in my passport.
Facial recognition, China-style.

Just a couple of months ago, Thai police launched a search for a young man in a yellow T-shirt, whom they believe blew up Bangkok's Erawan shrine on August 16. They had the CCTV footage of the suspect, but the quality was far from perfect. I've seen the snapshot of the footage: it's grainy, blur, and I could not even see his facial features. Worse, I would probably not recognize the suspect had he walked past me then and there.
Nonetheless, Thai police managed to arrest the suspect at the Cambodian border and said he matched the description of the yellow-shirted bomber in the footage.
But how can they be so sure?

Luckily for us, there are people who possess this seemingly unique ability to recognize faces. The Scotland Yard, for example, has formed a team of super-recognizers that specialize in recognizing faces, and one of their most important tasks is to sit in CCTV control centers to scan the crowd.

"Gary Collins is so good that he ID'd three people over his Sunday roast," says Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, speaking about one member of the super-recognizer team who likes to relax on weekends with an iPad loaded with photos of criminal suspects.

After London's 2011 riots, the super-recognizers combed through thousands of hours of footage, and Collins alone identified 190 faces among the rioters.

How hard can that be, you may ask.
Some of us have thousands of friends on Facebook and it's easy to remember all their names, right?

Well, we're not talking about recognizing the faces you're familiar withlike the faces of your friends and family–we're talking about recognizing the face of a stranger, a person whom you see for the very first time, say from two different photos laid side-by-side. Still don't think it's hard? You can take a simple test here, devised by Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich, to see how good you are at it. Note: I scored 11 out of 14. That's a B+.

However, the ability to recognize faces is not so rare. In fact, you might share this ability, too, and not even know it. According to David White of the University of New South Wales' forensic psychology laboratory, the ability to recognize faces, it seems, falls along a spectrum. At one end are the people who are "face-blind", also known as prosopagnosia, while the other end sit the super-recognizers. There are, however, fewer than 1 percent of people on this planet who falls into the super-recognizer end.

For the remaining 99%, hope is not all lost. There are, in fact, ways to improve your facial recognition skills. In a study published recently in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, White's team tested a group of crack forensic examiners who specialize in face image analysis to see whether they would perform better than average. These group of expert super-recognizers, it turned out, did perform better than either untrained students or forensic experts who don't match faces regularly. These elite group of specialists are so good they could even identify faces that were shown upside-down. This leads White to suggest that with training, super-recognizers could further enhance their skills beyond their natural abilities.

Malcolm

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