Are you a super recognizer?

After reading this piece you would wish you were one?

First, a story.

A few months ago, Russians operatives slipped into the UK and reportedly poisoned some persons. At the beginning of the investigation, no one knew those responsible for the incident. But British police suspected that the Russians were likely involved due to the “signature” of the poison used.

So they engaged the services of a few super recognizers they had earlier discovered to sift through thousands of video footages from UK International airports and from the streets of the locale where the poisoning took place.

Within a few days, two Russians were isolated from the millions of footages of the targeted days courtesy of super recognizers working for the London Metropolitan Police.

Super recognizers: who are they?

They are people who are exceptionally good at remembering faces. They can see a face briefly, as briefly as a few seconds and are able to precisely remember the face if they see it again anywhere in the world whether physically, in a newspaper, on television or online. This memory can last for years.

Just like talented autistic children who have photographic memory for numbers or mathematics, super recognizers have a photographic memory of faces, though they have average IQs.

How the talent was accidentally discovered.

In 2008, a postdoctoral student at Harvard named Richard Russell was working with a team of perceptual psychologists on a study of prosopagnosia, or “face blindness.” This is a condition that makes it difficult for a person to recognize a face. For instance, a man suffering from the disease may not be able to recognize his wife. While a mother that has the condition may drop off a child at school in the morning and not be able to identify that same child later in the day when she goes for an after-school pickup. In the extreme case of the disease, sufferers are unable to identify themselves when shown their own photograph. The condition may arise from stroke, injury or could be inherited.

Since Richard Russell and his colleagues did not have enough people to work with both for sample and control groups, they sent out a bulletin asking for more people with the condition to volunteer.

They got more than they bargained for!

As the responses came in, some persons indicated that their “problem” was not that of failing to remember faces but the reverse, not forgetting faces.

So, Richard and his team reached out to these “strange group” and designed two perception tests for them to take. The tests were to clearly establish that they indeed have super “face-recall memory.” 

A typical face recognition test administered to super recognizers.(

First was the “Cambridge Face Memory Test”, in which the subject is instructed to find matches among faces stripped of hair or other visual clues. A second test, called “Before They Were Famous”, consisted of a series of images of celebrities, in their youth. (The researchers chose celebrities because they needed faces that most subjects would have some prior familiarity with.)

The four people who took the tests aced them. However, while the Americans did not follow up on how to use this unique talent, the British police saw a law enforcement gold reserve and decided to mine it. Incidentally, they realized that some police officers had the talent, though unused. They officially tested them and were amazed with the outcomes.

A Police Chief in the Metropolitan Police then set up a unit specially for officers with the talent. It was the first of its kind in the world.

At the moment, there about six of such officers and they have become a squad for cracking both new and cold cases. They spend a lot of time viewing tons of video feeds, memorizing thousands of faces every day for possible use later down the road. One of those officers, considered the most prolific of the super recognizers is Andy Pope. According to the Guardian UK,

“Between 2012 and 2017, he has identified 1,000 criminal suspects, sometimes by connecting images taken from CCTV footage to mugshots available on the police database or looking at grainy images of suspects and being able to identify them by standing at the street corners of probable areas police think they operate from. Several of the suspects have been convicted and sent to jail.”

“For much of his life Pope had no grasp of his talent. Neither his dad, an architectural technician, nor his mum, a secretary, displayed the same ability. As a child, Pope remembers watching television and being able to recall the names of obscure actors he’d once noticed in the background of other programmes”

(Mr Pope at his duty post “soaking in” new faces)

It was when Pope started working as a police officer that he discovered that while walking the streets he could spot faces and know, in a flash, who they were, where he had met them, and whether they were criminal suspects. The uncanny thing about Mr. Pope is that he doesn’t have to see the entire face to recognize it. He could use just the eyes of masked criminals to recognize them.

Now, police authorities around the world are beginning to give serious thoughts about how to use super recognizers for law enforcement in addition to facial recognition technologies. Meanwhile, various associations and certifiers are currently springing up.

Could there be super recognizers in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa?

Yes. Preliminary studies indicate that about 1-2% of a country’s population may possess this genetic talent. This means that about 2-4 million Nigerians may be somewhere in the spectrum of Super recognition. The big question is, who will find them and what shall we do with them?

Certainly, I am not one of those talented Nigerians with super eyes. But I took the test anyway and flunked it, scoring 4/14.

A super recognizer will score a minimum of 10/14 and move to the second stage test.

Do you want to certify your super recognizer status? Take the test at the link below and you might be on your way to something big. But remember to carry me along o.

About author
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Newspackng.
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