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Some people never forget a face

/ Source: contributor

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.

“Try to remember the structural aspects of the face instead of incidental surface features,'' he says. “Don't focus too much on details, but rather form an overall, holistic impression of a person's face.''

As for Jarett, she's thrilled with her new scientific designation.

“My friends and I joke that I should get a cape with a big S on it,'' she says. “When I was little, I always wanted to have super powers. Now I'm finally getting to fulfill my childhood dream.''

Elizabeth Fernandez is a writer based in San Francisco.