Super recognizers are people with extraordinarily good face recognition ability. It is estimated that less than 2 percent of the population are super-recognizers. Are photographers any more likely to possess this superpower?
In recent years you may have heard the term super-recognizers in regards to the success stories of specialist police officers with their exceptional ability to identify criminal offenders from CCTV footage. The term super-recognizer refers to any one who can remember at least 80 percent of the faces they have seen. When you compare this to the much lower 20 percent which most normal people score, you can see why this remarkable "superpower" continues to attract widespread interest. The fact that people with this faculty still seem to be far superior to computer recognition systems means it's no surprise that police forces are looking to harness this skill to fight crime.
The science behind the phenomenon is still very much emerging but many believe it is down to the fusiform face area which is part of the brain. The general consensus is that this section responds mostly to faces although there have been some who question if it is uniquely dedicated to just this as the area has been shown to activate for various other stimuli. The size of this area will vary from person to person and it's these functional clusters which aid in your ability to correctly recognize a face.
With that brief science lesson out of the way, how exactly does this relate to photographers?
The reason I was made aware of this fascinating topic was thanks to a social media post which linked to an online test that could tell if you had what it takes to be a super-recognizer. The test itself only takes about five minutes and is actually quite fun. During the 14 trials you are shown a single face to memorize after which you are given an array of faces to find the corresponding one. The test starts quite easy but gets much harder towards the end. Any score of 10 or more from the trial could suggest you possess the skill, so when my score came back at 13 out of 14 I was obviously very pleased. After my mini celebration, I started to wonder if my skills as a photographer had anything to do with it? I shared the link with several other photographer friends and they all performed equally as well. The science suggests this ability is something you are born with rather than learned, but the fact in my very limited experience I found creatives did better than the average I was curious if there was anything to my speculation. Maybe we just gravitate towards professions that are more appropriate to our genetic makeup?
I reached out to principal researcher Dr. Josh P. Davis who is reader of applied psychology at the University of Greenwich and is responsible for the super-recognizer test which I took. I asked Dr. Davis if there were any studies related to my cobbled together hypothesis and surprisingly there was. He told me about an experiment where expert portrait artists were tested to see if their facial recognition abilities were much better than most. Although the findings did not completely back up my theory, they did show that portrait artists tended to be better than average.
Photographers are very different to portrait artists, and for this reason I'd be fascinated to know if they would fair any better in the test. If you think about the skills involved to successfully keep track of strangers at a busy wedding or the abilities needed to hunt out interesting faces in street photography it would not surprise me if we had more super-recognizers than many other professions.
What do you guys think? If you'd be interested in taking the free test it only takes five minutes and I'd love to hear how you scored. Some of you may have had a superpower all this time and didn't even know it.
Image used with permission of Dr. Josh P. Davis.