The BBC has been impressing me lately with a series of articles called BBC Future. They’re well-written, seemingly well-informed explanations of topics in science and technology, many of which should be intriguing to skeptics if not specifically to atheists.
A recent installment, by one Madhumita Venkataramanan, concerns so-called “super-recognizers” – individuals who have an abnormally good eye for human faces, such that they’re able to remember the features of near-strangers well enough to recognize them in unusual contexts, after a period of years, and/or based on very poor-quality images. Not surprisingly, super-recognizers can be highly useful in the field of law enforcement, an aspect of the subject that Venkataramanan explores in some detail. The policeman Gary Collins, for example, succeeded in spotting a petty criminal called Stephen Prince on CCTV footage that showed him participating in the London riots of 2011 in clothing that concealed most of his face.
“The last time I’d seen Prince was about six years earlier, but I was positive it was him. I knew it straightaway from his eyes. So we went to court,” PC Collins says. Prince was eventually found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison – one of the longest riot-related sentences.
I don’t doubt the capabilities of Collins and his fellow super-recognizers, even though they sound (as the headline of the BBC article suggests) like a veritable superpower. Everyday experience demonstrates that some people have a much better memory for faces than others, and it stands to reason that a small percentage of us will fall at the very high end of what is clearly a spectrum of ability. Nevertheless, Venkataramanan’s article gives the impression that super-recognizers are still rather poorly understood, despite the fact that a whole blog appears to be devoted to the phenomenon. Venkataramanan quotes Collins as saying that his talent might have “something to do with attention to detail or pattern recognition”, but notes that super-recognizers “aren’t any better than average people at recognising things that aren’t faces, like flowers or chairs”. There may, however, be a connection between facial recognition ability and personality:
Those who are good at facial recognition tend to be extroverts and can establish trust more quickly.
This makes it sound like the continuum between prosopagnosia (a posh word for very poor ability to recognize faces) and super-recognition has more to do with how one is wired socially than how one is wired visually, at least at the high end. Venkataramanan mentions research suggesting that around 1% of us may be super-recognizers, while 2% may be prosopagnosics.
After reading about super-recognizers I found myself wondering if there might be some connection between facial recognition talent and pareidolia, the perception of spurious face-like patterns. When the beatific face of Jesus appears on a tortilla or a moth down in Texas, that’s pareidolia. Could super-recognizers, with their seemingly heightened visual receptivity to facial features, be especially prone to this kind of thing? Pushing the idea a little further, and keeping in mind the link between super-recognition and extroversion, might super-recognizers even be especially prone to religious thinking, which entails an essentially social perception of what sensible people regard as a blind, uncaring universe? (For what it’s worth, there may be a feeble but statistically detectable correlation between extroversion and religiosity – PDF here.)
If there’s an overarching relationship among super-recognition, extroversion, pareidolia and religious belief, it will probably turn out to be a weak and ambiguous one, but that’s par for the course in psychology and the other social sciences. However, I can offer myself as a pretty good example of someone who lacks that cluster of traits. I doubt that I make the grade for prosopagnosia, but my memory for faces is fairly poor, and I’m certainly no extrovert. I’m not immune to non-religious forms of pareidolia, having once distinctly seen the face of Edgar Allan Poe in the fuzzy grey background of a slide at a scientific conference, but I don’t think I’m very susceptible to the phenomenon. I often have difficulty, as a matter of fact, spotting hidden faces in images that have them deliberately worked in. And I swear to God I’m not religious. What more do we need?