Could you spot an unfamiliar face in a crowd?  For most of us, it would be a big ask.  But some people are super recognizers, and their innate abilities are much in demand.  In the Margaret Mead Award Lecture at the British Science Festival, Sarah Bate explained the phenomenon.  Alan Barker took notes.


I never forget a face.  You’d say the same, I’m sure.  Sarah Bate, Principal Academic at Bournemouth University, knows more than most about the complex cognition that underlies this ability.  In the Margaret Mead Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival, she took us from face-blindness to super-recognition. 

Facial recognition involves five sub-processes.  First, we detect a face by recognizing its basic components: eyes, nose, mouth.  Then we encode a mass of useful information about the person: gender, age, emotional state.  Thirdly, we confirm familiarity by matching an abstracted version of the face to a mental database.  We then establish an identity: this is the man from the petrol station; this is the woman I met at the Science Festival.  (My own processing tends to break down at this point...)  And finally, we assign a name to the identity.

With a normal upright face, we use a holistic processing strategy: we look at the whole face.  Turn a face upside down, and we must use a feature-by-feature approach, which isn’t nearly so accurate, as the famous Thatcher illusion demonstrates.

Facial recognition skills lie on a spectrum.  Most of us, for instance, recognize familiar faces more easily than unfamiliar faces.  Show us ten pictures of unfamiliar but similar faces, and we’d be hard put to say whether any pictures are of the same person. 

Some people have this problem with every face they encounter.  These people, at one far end of the spectrum, have prosopagnosia, commonly called face blindness.  The name is unfortunate:  prosopagnosiacs can see faces, but they can’t distinguish them individually.  To someone with face blindness, everyone looks the same. 

Prosopagnosia can cause embarrassment and distress; it can cause people to lose their jobs; it can make a child extremely vulnerable.  Sarah estimates that about 2% of the population have the condition. 

Eye-tracking technology helps diagnose it.  Most people focus on the eyes before completing a triangle with nose and mouth.  Prosopagnosiacs’ eyes wander all over the face, or away from it.  Training in focussing seems to help.

At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called ‘super recognizers’.   They never forget a face: a skill that can itself be mortifying.  Intriguingly, a super recognizer tends to focus, not on eyes, but on the nose.  They seem to be favouring that holistic recognition strategy over the encoding sub-process that helps most of us extract information about feelings or intentions.  Super recognition certainly seems to be a highly restricted skill, unrelated to more generalised intelligence or memory.

Sarah’s work is already being put to use.  Scotland Yard has a Super Recognizer Unit that searches CCTV footage for suspects and missing people.  Different officers tend to exhibit different sub-skills, and Sarah is developing new tests to identify them.  Some are ‘super spotters’ (excellent at spotting faces in a crowd); some are ‘super matchers’ (they can match faces, such as in passport control); and others are the true ‘super-recognizers’ (they have an excellent memory for faces).  Yet others may be especially good at matching faces that have undergone changes such as plastic surgery or ageing: a skill that might help in hunting for children who have been missing for years.  Interestingly, very few officers display all of these skills together.

By understanding more about super recognition, Sarah hopes to learn more about face recognition as a whole – and find even more ways to help those who live with prosopagnosia.  If you think you can help Sarah with her work – either because you think you may have a problem with face recognition, or because you think you may be a super recognizer – she’d love to hear from you.  Find her contact details here.


Alan Barker is a writer and training consultant specialising in communication skills.  He is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited.