Super Recognizers and Visual Acuity

Super Recognizers

This is a fascinating article at The New Yorker by Patric Radden Keefe about a unique team of police at Scotland Yard composed of what are known as “super recognizers.”

Each officer has an extraordinary ability to recall and recognize faces, and to help solve crimes they employ that skill in scanning the endless amount of footage generated by London’s countless CCTV cameras (the city is regarded as the most highly surveilled in the world). In a little more than a year of operation as a dedicated unit, they’ve identified nearly two thousand perpetrators who would otherwise not have been caught.

The article examines the notion that the ability to recognize faces may in fact be a spectrum, with super recognizers on one end and those who suffer from “face blindness” on the other. Keefe writes:

In 2008, a postdoctoral student at Harvard named Richard Russell began working with a team of perceptual psychologists on a study of prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness,’ a condition in which patients are unable to recognize human faces. In extreme cases, prosopagnosia can be a socially debilitating affliction: a mother tries to retrieve the wrong child from day care because she does not recognize her own baby; a patient is shown a photograph of a woman and wonders who it is, only to be informed that she is looking at a picture of herself. But many people suffer from milder forms of face blindness, and may not realize that they are in any way abnormal. ‘We’re not good at talking about how we recognize faces,’ Russell said. ‘So we assume that other people are like us.’

Until recently, only a few hundred prosopagnosics had been studied, and from this research neuroscientists and perceptual psychologists had established a binary ‘pathological’ model: either you were normal, and could recognize faces, or you had face blindness. But new studies have indicated that although prosopagnosia can result from a stroke or traumatic brain injury, it is a heritable condition that is sometimes present from birth. It’s also much more widespread than was previously believed. With the advent of the Internet, formerly isolated individuals have found a community of fellow-sufferers.

Collaborating with two psychologists, Ken Nakayama and Brad Duchaine, Russell disseminated a bulletin in the Boston area seeking research subjects who thought that they might be face blind. The researchers heard back from many people who believed that they were prosopagnosic. But they also heard from a small group who said that they were ‘the opposite.’

Russell had come to suspect that facial recognition might not be simply a faculty that was either present or absent. What if it was on a spectrum? If most people are pretty good at recognizing faces and prosopagnosics are terrible at it, Russell recalls thinking, shouldn’t there be ‘some people on the high end’?

If this particular ability can be graded, it’s interesting to think that other kinds of visual acuity could be subject to similar ranges, especially through the lens of design. We think of the ability to recognize typefaces, for instance, as purely the result of close study of the craft, but what if some of us are just naturally more capable of discerning the difference between say Garamond and Goudy? Or, what if there is no baseline inherent to the ability to discern and interpret icons or interface elements? It seems possible that as designers, our understanding of the way that consumers of design perceive our work is fairly rudimentary. In the future, science may be able to quantify readability and usability more accurately, and also shed light on how much of the many details that designers fret over really matter to people who are not already steeped in the vernacular of our craft.

Read the full article at