You've probably heard about face blindness, an incurable neurological disorder that impairs someone's ability to recognize faces — even those of family or friends. It affects about 2.5 percent of the world’s population, or 1 in every 50 people.
At the other end of the spectrum are "super recognizers." These gifted individuals can remember people they've met or seen only briefly, as well as people they haven't seen in decades whose appearance may have changed. Though researchers don't yet know how many of us have these superior facial recognition skills, early estimates indicate that, like facial blindness, 1 in 50 people have the skill, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Researchers at Bournemouth University in the U.K. studied 254 British young adults and investigated how the super recognizers among them processed faces. According to an article written by one of the study authors, Sarah Bate, Ph.D., in The Conversation:
It has long been known that the optimal way to process faces involves the use of a “configural” or “holistic” processing strategy. This involves seeing faces as a whole, taking account of all of the facial features and the spacing between them. Interestingly, all of the super recognizer participants displayed heightened configural processing on at least one task. We also monitored their eye movements as they looked at faces. While control participants mostly looked at the eyes, super recognizers spent more time looking at the nose. It is possible that this more central viewing position promotes the optimal configural processing strategy.
Being a super recognizer has nothing to do with your intellect or your ability to excel at visual or memory tasks, according to Bate. However, it may have something to do with your genes, as increasing evidence shows the ability is hereditary. Face blindness has been known to run in families, too.
But don't feel bad if you're not a super recognizer. Chances are you recognize a lot more people than you realize. According to a October 2018 study, the vast majority of people recognize between 1,000 to 10,000 faces.
"There’s a huge difference between our ability to recognize familiar versus unfamiliar faces," professor Mike Burton told The Guardian. "People are surprisingly bad at checking a real face against a photo ID, and yet we recognize friends and colleagues over a huge range of conditions."
How can you test for this?
Bate writes that some tests show participants a photo of a celebrity taken a long time before they became famous. But that test is flawed, because you never know when you're going to get a celebrity superfan in the mix. "A more reliable option is to assess performance on computerized tests that require participants to memorize faces and to later recall them. The number of correct responses can then be compared to the average score achieved by people with typical face recognition skills," Bate says.
During the tests, researchers found some participants were "extremely good at deciding whether pairs of simultaneously presented faces were of the same person or two different people." One superhero-like skill that hasn't yet been tested is the ability to scan large crowds for individual faces.
Some police forces are already screening candidates for superior facial recognition skills. These super spotters could scan CCTV or security camera footage for a missing person, victim or suspect. Or they could examine passports at airports or border crossings. As Bate points out, there may not be enough of these people to go around for all the potential uses, but an "elite team" could be formed and deployed as needed.
It's interesting that as technology plays a bigger role in those kinds of policing activities, some elite humans are also stepping up to the plate.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in November 2016.