Meet the Super-recognisers

18 Sep
September 18, 2012

It doesn’t matter how innocent you are, there is something a little unnerving about walking into a police station to meet two coppers who will never forget your face. But that’s what I did for my latest New Scientist feature on “super-recognisers”.

Super-recognisers –  people who score off the scale on face memory tests and can recognise casual acquaintances years later and totally out of context – are a fairly new discovery in neuroscience. They came to light when researchers studying the opposite condition, prosopagnosia or face-blindness (which I wrote about here) were contacted by a handful saying that they had the opposite problem: that they never forgot a face. It might not sound like a problem but it can, I’m assured, be so embarrassing that people hide it to prevent coming across as a stalker. Sure enough, they were so good at recognising faces that the researchers had to devise an especially difficult test for them. Which they duly scored near-perfect on.

London’s Metropolitan Police has identified at least 20 super-recognisers in their ranks, one of which, a PC from Hackney in North London, identified 185 suspects from CCTV footage of the London riots, compared to an average of 1 or 2 from most of his colleagues. I ask, slightly nervously, if he would recognise me if he passed me in the street in 2 years time. “Oh yeah,” he replies.”I might not remember where we met but I’d definitely recognise you”. Best behaviour in north London from now on then…

If you think you might be a super-recogniser (or faceblind) then you can test your own skills here. If you get nearly all right, or nearly all wrong then this man, or this one would probably like to hear from you.

And you can read my feature, including some great quotes from PC Gary Collins and Detention Officer Idris Bada (below) here.