Scientist finds 650 people with superhuman facial recognition skills… on reddit

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On Thursday 11 August, Goldsmiths neuropsychologist Dr Ashok Jansari took part in a massive online Q&A on reddit that identified over 650 people around the world with near superhuman facial recognition abilities.

In a matter of hours over 16,000 people took part in an online facial recognition test posted to the site, providing data that could lead to a step change in facial recognition research.

As well as supercharging participant engagement with the study, Dr Jansari answered scores of questions about his research.

Taking in extremes at either end of the facial recognition spectrum, Jansari discussed his work with people suffering from prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, who can find it difficult to recognise even close family members.

At the opposite extreme, he spoke of his work with London’s Metropolitan Police, who are the first police force to deploy so called ‘super-recognisers’ to catch criminals. These rare individuals have heightened facial recognition abilities and can pick out faces from even the most indistinct CCTV footage.

Using data gathered from reddit users, Dr Jansari hopes to publish new findings that could advance our understanding of how the brain recognises faces.

Wait, what’s reddit? What’s an AMA?

Reddit is a social network / content aggregator website made up of over 900k special interest communities called ‘subreddits’. It receives over 170 million views per month and has spawned thousands of memes.

Each day, reddit gives researchers from around the world the opportunity to directly engage with its truly global audience. The ‘AMA’ (Ask Me Anything) session was hosted by reddit’s 12 million strong science community and generated over 850 comments and questions. The discussion was extremely popular and was voted onto the website's front page, which attracts over six million visitors a day.

Ashok’s top five questions and responses

Q: Is it possible to improve your "face vision" or are people mostly set for life?

A: Yes, generally it is possible to improve face recognition by looking at internal features of faces - too many people rely on what we call 'variant properties' that change such as facial hair, glasses, hair styles, etc. - these change so much that if you rely on them you will find it difficult. But concentrating on the 'invariant properties' such as the eyes, the distance from the nose, etc., you are more likely to remember faces since these properties don't change.

Q: I have a friend who might be a super-recogniser. I encouraged her to take the test! Is it a recruitment tool? Like, would the London police offer her a job if she was one? Like Professor X recruits mutants? The only problem is that she lives in Toronto. It's funny because her recognising random people she met years ago at a party is her superpower, but we joke that it is totally useless.

A: Well I think that eventually in some professions it could become a recruitment tool, but it's rather early for that to happen. But certainly, in the work that I'm helping with London's Metropolitan Police (which is the first work in the world to use super-recognisers), if someone is shown to be a super-recogniser they are being strategically deployed

Q: Are "super recognisers" better than existing facial recognition technologies? What can such technologies learn from these individuals in order to better automate processes like looking at CCTV images for hours?

A: Good question. During the London riots of 2011, there were 5000 people that the Metropolitan Police were looking for and the only evidence they had was CCTV. They published stills from these videos on their internal system and asked their officers to have a look at the faces (separated by region of crime) to see if they recognised any from their particular area of work. Doing this, 4,000 of the individuals were identified, which in itself was amazing since it was the first time that CCTV had been used as a forensic tool.

More interestingly, the average police officer recognised between 2 and 3 suspects while VERY EXPENSIVE facial recognition software that the police force had invested in recognised just ONE of the 5,000 suspects - showing that the average officer in the Metropolitan Police is better than very expensive facial recognition software ;-) But this is also how they found the super-recognisers because some of the officers were recognising dozens of people. And one of them (who I do research with now) recognised 183 people!!!!!!!

This shows us that the human brain is exceptional at this ability and unless we use biometric data such as iris shape and pupil dilation that some very sophisticated security systems use, generally face-recognition software is rather poor..... The human brain rocks :-)

Q: I have difficulty recognising casual acquaintances when they are out of the context I know or are used to seeing them in. If I see them in a suit, and I'm used to seeing them in jeans, I sometimes take a bit (usually when I hear their voice or see them move) before I recognise them. I also have a horrible sense of direction and a poor ability to visualise or remember numbers (I'll scramble 284 as 248). Are all of these symptoms related? 

A: People with face-blindness tend to use methods to recognise people that aren't the standard ones that everyone else uses - so they might rely on hair style, facial hair, clothing, voice and even walking gait. This is why you would have more difficulty recognising someone out of context and in different clothing because you have become accustomed to using clothing as a way to recognise people - this is quite common for people with face-blindness.

Q: How old are people usually when they are diagnosed with face blindness? Is it apparent in the very young? Thank you for doing this AMA.

A: That's an interesting question. In fact, there is no specific age of diagnosis - so for example, I have worked with some people who have had very successful jobs who only realised they had developmental face-blindness in their 40s, 50s and sometimes later. They may always have thought they had a problem but until they hear that it is a specific condition, they may put it down to something else…So basically the condition can be 'masked' until someone hears of the term 'face-blindness' - so this is why I am very passionate about doing public engagement like this to spread awareness.

Read the full exchange on reddit