From face blindness to super-recognisers: how research is changing lives

Around 1 in 50 people are thought to be affected by prosopagnosia or face blindness. The condition can have a significant effect on people’s personal and professional lives, but has only relatively recently begun to gain public attention. Bournemouth University’s Dr Sarah Bate has spent much of her career researching people affected by the condition, and more recently those at the other end of the spectrum: so-called ‘super-recognisers’.

Prosopagnosia affects people’s ability to recognise even the most familiar of faces. People are largely born with the condition, although in rare cases they may develop it in later life, following a head injury or illness. Until recently, it was thought that only a small number of people had prosopagnosia, but research led by Dr Bate has proved otherwise.

“My interest in the area stemmed from my undergraduate studies at the University of Exeter, where I first heard about the condition,” says Dr Bate, “My lecturer was in touch with one person with prosopagnosia and offered me the chance to work with that person for my final year project. It was a unique opportunity at the time, as not many people were thought to have prosopagnosia.”

“I continued researching face blindness for both my Master’s and PhD studies, but still with quite a limited pool of people as the condition was believed to be rare. It wasn’t until I’d completed my PhD and moved to Bournemouth University (BU) to set up my own research lab that I discovered this was quite far from the truth!”

“Not long after I moved to BU, my research gained considerable media coverage, which was probably one of the first times that face blindness had gained much public attention. It also coincided with people beginning to rely more on using the internet to better understand their symptoms. The combination of the two meant that suddenly I was being approached by thousands of people who thought they had the condition,” explains Dr Bate.

At the time, very few GPs and medical staff knew about prosopagnosia, so for many people, talking to Dr Bate was the first time they’d been able to fully understand their symptoms. In due course, the increased need to acknowledge people’s symptoms, combined with Dr Bate’s extensive research into diagnosis of prosopagnosia led to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recognising it as an official health condition in 2014.

Since then, much of Dr Bate’s research has moved on to focused on how to diagnose the condition in children. The tests used to diagnose prosopagnosia in adults do not work particularly well with children, so Dr Bate’s team have developed new methods involving eye-tracking technology to help with diagnostics.

“The tests we use with adults aren’t very suitable for children, as they tend not to have the concentration needed to make them work,” says Dr Bate, “We use state-of-the-art eye tracking technology, which enables us to pinpoint which parts of the face children are looking at. This is important because our research shows that typical people tend to spend more       time looking at the eyes, whereas those with prosopagnosia look at other areas of the face.”

“The main aim of developing better diagnostic tools for children is so that we can improve early intervention treatments for them. As with many conditions, the earlier interventions can be made, the more likely they are to succeed,” continues Dr Bate, “It’s harder to treat adults, as many will have developed their own coping strategies and they don’t always want to try something new.”

At the other end of the spectrum are so-called ‘super-recognisers’, who have above average abilities when it comes to recognising faces. This is an area of research that Dr Bate has begun to explore more recently, in an attempt to understand if prosopagnosia is a developmental disorder or a sliding scale of ability.

“The idea was that if we have people who are at the bottom end of a normal range when it comes to facial recognition, then there must be people who are at the top range too,” explains Dr Bate, “We’ve developed research in this area, which is now beginning to help organisations such as the police and border control to identify which of their staff are best at recognising faces.”

“We found that different people are better at different aspects of facial recognition, so it’s not just about screening for the ‘best’ people. Computer software is a long way off being able to perform this function of policing and border control, so it was important for us to have rigorous research to back our theories.”

For more information about prosopagnosia and super-recognisers, visit the Centre for Face Processing Disorder’s web page:

This article was featured in the 2018 Bournemouth Research Chronicle. To see the magazine in full, click here or pick up a copy in Poole House or Studland House reception.