Is there a link between Natural History and Super Facial Recognition?

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Tuesday, 5 December 2017 07:53

I'm going to ask you to take part in some research. I am a super recogniser when it comes to people's faces. It's a weird thing recognising people whom I know don't recognise me. I get it all the time. Most memorable recent  incidents include:

  • Seeing a guy from behind at a bar and recognising him by only seeing about 30% of his face. I shared a house with him in Cambridge 10 years ago before I moved back to Brighton. I've not seen him since and do not know him on social media.
  • Seeing a chap who pierced my septum (before it became cool with the hipsters) some 16 years ago. My friend said "no he's way too young, it can't be him". I approached and it was!
  • I've recently moved house and someone working in the Co-op set it off. When a second person in there did I realised it was because they both used to work in a different Co-op across the other side of town some 8 years ago.
  • Stranger Things 2. "That's Burke from Aliens!". Yep, I get it in TV and movies too.
It would seem that repeat exposure to a face has a real impact and the mind is also able to calibrate for age too. It's not meant to be that rare, some 5% of people fall into the category apparently.

When I say 'set it off', I mean it. I get a really strange sensation. Like an itch I have to scratch and my mind will preoccupy itself with trying to figure out why it 'knows' this person, and I usually get there in the end. Even if it means approaching the individual to verify. So what does this have to do with natural history? Well I often think it's no coincidence that I find myself in the field I am in. Did I become good at natural history because I was born with an ability to classify faces or did my ability to classify faces develop as I exercised my brain in classifying the natural world around me? The causality of this is fascinating and a question that would involve some very different research to what I am trying to figure out here. What I would like to do here is ask you to do this quick online test. It just took me about 10 minutes. There has been some confusion about which test I am talking about (I only see one on the link) so it's the Cambridge Face Memory Test: Computer Generated Faces. I think this might be part 2? If you can't see this test I will have another look later this evening and hopefully I can fix the link. Sorry for any confusion!

Now I would also like you tell me which category you fall in to:
  • A non-naturalist. Someone has never identified any wildlife, you might be interested but you certainly wouldn't consider it your primary hobby.
  • A naturalist whom considers natural history their primary pass time.
  • A pan-species lister (you know who you are!). Clearly a naturalist who can take on a wide range of different taxa and store a huge amount of information. If you fall into this category please also report your current list.
So my score. I fall into the last category above and have just scored 68. It says 54 is the average and scored higher than more than 9 out of 10 people.

So I would like to see if there are any differences between the three categories above. I know this is total pseudo-science and I am not selecting a representative sample, I am just doing this for fun. Please don't just do this test because you think you might be good at facial recognition as that will hugely bias the results. I know I did that but we wouldn't be here if I didn't. So, please have a go and leave me your scores somewhere in the comments or on social media. I'll then compile the results and do some analysis to see if there are any differences. PM if you don't want to make your results public.

Many thanks!

Nature Blog Network