Why Some People Will Never Forget a Face

AT&T Laboratories Cambridge

How does the brain process information? In particular, is the cognitive portion of the brain divided up into a number of task-specific ‘modules’, each of which are devoted to a specific task, or is the brain constituted by (one or many) processing units which are flexible in their operation? Modularists, as those in the former camp are called, often appeal to a form of argument which makes use of the idea that certain cognitive characteristics appear to be dissociable from others, such that certain individuals can excel, or struggle, in distinct tasks in ways not necessarily related to the complexity of the task, or proportional to their general intelligence. To this end, Williams Syndrome and – at the other end of the spectrum – SLI are invoked to support a modular conception of language faculties, and autism is sometimes (questionably) invoked in support of the view that the capacity to deploy a theory of mind is modular.

Face-recognition is another commonly-cited, and perhaps less-controversial, candidate for being a modular system. The dissociation-evidence for this comes chiefly from prosopagnosia: a condition whose sufferers display impaired facial recognition capacities. But what of the opposite dissociation-condition? BBC Radio 4 recently aired a programme detailing the condition of people who are known as ‘Super Recognisers’: individuals who – nearly – never forget a face, even after a brief meeting. A Super Recogniser may even be able to recall a face after many years have passed, compensating for the changes in appearance produced by ageing and the everyday wear and tear we are all (alas) familiar with.

The programme discusses the condition with Jennifer, a ‘sufferer’ of Super Recognition. She argues that the condition is not without its perils, and she is sometimes forced to lie when re-meeting highly casual acquaintances to avoid scaring them with her peculiar capacity to recall, say, their passing meeting in the cafeteria six months previously. However, the condition, she confesses, does have its upside: “I do always tell people that I think I would be the perfect witness for a crime”.

You can listen to the programme here.

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