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!

7 Response to "Is there a link between Natural History and Super Facial Recognition?"

Malcolm Storey Says:

I scored 45 which puts me below average, in fact right at the bottom (0 out of 10). But I know what you mean about recognising people. I'm always spotting actors I've seen before and can usually remember what series/movie (unless it's Kevin Bacon!), and occasionally people I've met only once in real life. I'm a PSL'er but of course that only requires you to recognise things that you haven't seen before...

Mark Boyd Says:

I scored 48 - below average - which is what I would expect. I suspect I'd be even worse had the faces been more obviously female. I would say I am a keen naturalist, but definitely not a panlister.

Anonymous Says:

I scored 29 only. I am aware that I generally do have problems recognizing faces. But I am very keen naturalist, doing many kinds of listing comparable to pan-species listing. I always feel that you have distinct characters when it comes to recognize species compared to recognizing human faces.

C Says:

A really interesting test. I'm fascinated by faces and generally have a good memory of people I may only have seen or known fleetingly, so have had some similar experiences to you. I scored 60. I don't fall into your categories though - I'm somewhere between the first and second, i.e. I'm really into wildlife, can usually identify the things I'm interested in such as different species of spider, and recognise many bird species as well as individuals within them (such as being able to tell the difference between several female blackbirds and recognising them individually if they are regular garden visitors) but it is just a hobby/interest. However I am an artist/illustrator and I think it might be something to do with the way my brain works in a very visual way as I enjoy observing things and remember visual details over other details. Not sure if that helps!

Ron Says:

53 was my score and I'm a naturalist whom considers natural history their primary pass time.

Andy Says:

I got 61, non naturalist. I wouldn't say I began the test thinking I was particularly good at recognising faces!

J. Burnham Says:

I'm a keen naturalist and scored 56 in this test - it would have been more if some of the faces had hair or there were more Simpsons characters.
My son scored 50 and he has no interest in wildlife - he also bemoaned a lack of Simpsons faces in the test proper.
I think the lesson here is we watch too many cartoons.
Walt D

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