Thursday, May 28, 2009

Some people never forget a face

‘Super-recognizers’ have uncanny ability to remember everyone they meet

By Elizabeth Fernandez contributor
updated 7:27 a.m. CT, Thurs., May 28, 2009

We've all had that sinking feeling: a person seems familiar, someone we might have once met, but somehow we just can't place the face.

Not Jennifer Jarett. She never forgets a face. Not even someone she met for just a moment, not even decades later.

Jarett is a “super-recognizer,'' a freshly minted term for an elite group of people who are exceptional at remembering faces.It's sort of a weird thing to be able to do,'' says Jarett, 38, a Manhattan resident who works as a city employee. “My friends refer to me as their memory. People's faces don't really change to me, even people from my childhood. It's as if they are cemented in my brain.''

Psychologists at Harvard University have discovered that Jarett shares her special knack with others, establishing for the first time that some people have superior skills at face recognition.

From face blind to super-vision
New research shows that there's a broad range of face-recognition ability, a spectrum ranging from the “face blind'' to those on the opposite end with superior powers of perception.

“Super-recognizers actually see faces differently,'' says Dr. Richard Russell, a researcher in the Harvard Vision Sciences Laboratory and lead author of the new study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. “They can recognize people out of context, people who aren't important to them, people who they may have met only briefly.''

Russell and his colleagues were investigating developmental prosopagnosia, a condition in which people have normal vision but are unable to recognize faces, even those of close relatives — an estimated 2 percent of the general population has exceptionally poor face-recognition ability.

Amid the research, the scientists were contacted by Jarett and several others claiming to have stellar recognition abilities.

Intrigued, the scientists concocted a battery of difficult tests. One, called Before They Were Famous, required the subjects to identify famous individuals as children. All four test subjects passed the experiments with high marks.

“My boyfriend called me a freak of nature,'' says Christine Erickson, 42, a stay-at-home mother of two in Boston, one of the super-recognizers. Erickson once had a chance encounter with a woman who years earlier had been her waitress.

“She had transformed from being an edgy-looking urban hipster to having long hair and looking completely different,'' says Erickson. “I flipped through my mental files and recognized her.''

Super-recognizer or, um, stalker?
To their chagrin, super-recognizers have learned that their special gifts are not always appreciated.

“People sometimes give me strange looks, like I was stalking them,'' says Jarett.

Riding the subway about a year ago, she recognized a man who once worked for her hairdresser.

“I said 'You were Barry's assistant.' He looked at me funny — it had been five years. So I said 'Oh, the reason I remember you is because you did such a good job blowing out my hair.' He seemed really flattered.''

Jarett hasn't found any particular use for her skill, but the study says benefits might surface. For instance, airport security employees could be screened for their ability to recognize faces, and eyewitnesses to crimes could similarly be assessed.

Tips for ordinary folks
For people with average ability, Dr. Jim Tanaka, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, who is not connected with the new study, offers a few tips to enhance recognition.

“Pay close attention to the dynamics of the face — the movement, the expressions, the different angles,'' says Tanaka, who studies cognitive and neurological processes underlying face recognition.

Also, he says, put less emphasis on superficial cues that can change over time, such as hairstyles and eyeglasses.


'Barking' Feral Girl 'Raised By Dogs'

Barking' Feral Girl 'Raised By Dogs'

A five-year-old girl who was allegedly "brought up" by cats and dogs in a flat has been taken into care, Russian police have revealed.

The child, who lived in the eastern Siberian city of Chita, could not speak Russian and acted like an dog.

"For five years, she was 'brought up' by several dogs and cats and had never been outside," a police statement said.

"The unwashed girl was dressed in filthy clothes, had the clear attributes of an animal and jumped at people," it said.

The flat had no heat, water or sewage system.

A police spokeswoman said the girl, known as Natasha, is being monitored by psychologists in an orphanage.

Her mother was being questioned but her father has not been found yet.

She has the appearance of a two year old, although her real age is five.

The youngster refuses to eat with a spoon and has taken on many of the gestures of the animals with which she lived, police said.

"When carers leave the room, the girl jumps at the door and barks," the police said.

Feral children, the stuff of folklore all over the world, usually exhibit the behaviour of the animals with whom they have had closest contact.

The condition is known as the Mowgli Syndrome after the fictional child from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book who was raised by wolves.

Such children have usually built strong ties with the animals with whom they lived and find the transition to normal human existence highly traumatic.


Iraq-born teen cracks maths puzzle

Iraq-born teen cracks maths puzzle

A 16-year-old Iraqi immigrant living in Sweden has cracked a maths puzzle that has stumped experts for more than 300 years, Swedish media reported on Thursday.

In just four months, Mohamed Altoumaimi has found a formula to explain and simplify the so-called Bernoulli numbers, a sequence of calculations named after the 17th century Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, the Dagens Nyheter daily said.

Altoumaimi, who came to Sweden six years ago, said teachers at his high school in Falun, central Sweden were not convinced about his work at first.

"When I first showed it to my teachers, none of them thought the formula I had written down really worked," Altoumaimi told the Falu Kuriren newspaper.

He then got in touch with professors at Uppsala University, one of Sweden's top institutions, to ask them to check his work.

After going through his notebooks, the professors found his work was indeed correct and offered him a place in Uppsala.

But for now, Altoumaimi is focusing on his school studies and plans to take summer classes in advanced mathematics and physics this year.

"I wanted to be a researcher in physics or mathematics; I really like those subjects. But I have to improve in English and social sciences," he told the Falu Kuriren.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Secret of the Curve Ball

The World's Best Illusion: The Secret of the Curve Ball

Devin Powell
Inside Science News Service
May 13, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. (ISNS) -- The three best visual illusions in the world were chosen at a gathering last weekend of neuroscientists and psychologists at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Florida.

The winning entry, from a Bucknell University professor, may help explain why curve balls in baseball are so tricky to hit.

A properly thrown curve ball spins in a way that makes the air on one side move faster than on the other. This causes the ball to move along a gradual curve. From the point of view of a batter standing on home plate, though, curve balls seem to "break," or move suddenly in a new direction.

This year's winning illusion, created by Arthur Shapiro of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, may explain this phenomena. His animation shows a spinning ball that, when watched directly, moves in a straight line. When seen out of the corner of the eye, however, the spin of the ball fools the brain into thinking that the ball is curving.

So as a baseball flies towards home plate, the moment when it passes from central to peripheral vision could exaggerate the movement of the ball, causing its gradual curve to be seen as a sudden jerk.

In second place was an illusion of ghostly colors. Stare at a waterfall for a few minutes, look away, and the still world around you will appear to flow. The effect is called an "afterimage."

Scientists in Israel created a drawing of a sky with clouds that flashes red for a split second. A white dove flying across the sky seems to turn red seconds after the flash, showing that an afterimage color can linger in our vision and bleed into empty spaces.

The third place award went to the pair of photographs below. One appears to be male; the other, female. Both faces actually belong to the same person, digitally altered by Richard Russell of Harvard University. The dark parts of the photograph are a little darker and light parts are a little lighter in the "female" photograph. The subtle changes suggest that one way our brains may sort out sex is to notice how strong the contrast is between features.

"Visual illusions show us where physical reality and our perceptions don't match, so we can get at what the brain is actually doing," says contest organizer Stephen MacKnik of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.

Shapiro's trophy, a sculpture created by Italian artist Guido Moretti, is itself a visual illusion that changes shape depending on what angle it is viewed from.

Shapiro's trophy

The full illusions and the other finalists from the competition can be seen at