Posts By / Sarah Bate

Final call for participants: Leverhulme Trust face recognition study

In the first week of the March 2019 COVID-19 lockdown, I found out that I had been awarded a Research Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust. The core research project on the grant seeks to understand how humans learn facial identities over time, and why some people (who have a condition known as “face blindness” or “prosopagnosia”) struggle with this task.

The project is particularly novel and ambitious because it seeks to emulate real-world face learning, which occurs during multiple social interactions with a person, extended over time. In contrast, most work to date has looked at face learning during a single session. Further, our methodology is necessarily laboratory-based, using eye-movement technology to track the progression of learning over time. Both repeat-testing and face-to-face testing are by no means conducive to the onset of a pandemic!

After several obvious delays to the project, we finally began testing at the beginning of July this year. With some novel obstacles to overcome amid the new COVID-19 risk assessments, it has nevertheless been an absolute pleasure to be back in the labs, meeting and testing participants. In fact, the new regulations pushed me back into the lab and the more hands-on aspects of research – not only have I enjoyed every minute of it but it has also made me reflect on the benefits of being more involved in this phase of the research cycle.

Because the project requires participants to visit the lab on five consecutive days (for approximately 50 minutes per day), there were moments where I thought the ambition in this project was too great for the current climate. We have certainly been interrupted by COVID and test and trace on several occasions! But thanks to the generosity and resilience of our participants and two exceptional student research assistants, we are coming close to our target sample size. This is in no small part thanks to the BU community, where we sourced the vast majority of our participants, and to whom we are extremely grateful.

We are now entering our last few weeks of data collection, before it is time to analyse the data and deliver the project outcomes to the Leverhulme Trust. If you can help us achieve this goal and are happy to take part in the study we would be delighted to hear from you. We are seeking Caucasian participants aged 30-59 years who can visit us on five consecutive days (evenings and weekends are available) in Poole House (Talbot Campus). We also award a £50 Amazon voucher to thank you for your time! We would be delighted to hear from anyone regardless of their face recognition ability – we still need a few more control participants, those with face blindness, and super-recognisers! You can contact me by email ( if you are willing to take part, and please do feel free to share the opportunity both within and outside of BU.

Many thanks for reading this post, and I look forward to reporting the findings of the study in due course.

Research from the Department of Psychology in the New Scientist

Research resulting from a BU-funded PhD studentship is featured in this week’s edition of the New Scientist, and was also recently covered by the Independent. Under the supervision of Dr Sarah Bate from the Department of Psychology (Faculty of Science and Technology), Anna Bobak has spent the last three years investigating so-called “super recognisers”, or people with extraordinary face recognition skills. It appears that only a small proportion of the general population have these skills, yet they may be incredibly useful in forensic and security tasks, such as the identification of perpetrators from CCTV footage or in passport control. While super-recognisers have previously been identified via laboratory tests of face recognition, Anna’s work demonstrates that only some of these individuals also excel at more applied face recognition tasks. In a recent paper published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, she demonstrates that more real-world tasks are required to identify the super recognisers who can truly be of value to the Police Force and in national security settings.

Anna has recently moved into a PDRA position where she continues to work with Sarah in the field of super recognition. Her post is part of a HEIF5+1 initiative that aims to generate knowledge exchange with the Police. The team are currently working directly with Dorset Police to create screening tools that can identify officers who may be particularly suited to certain face recognition tasks, and to make a series of recommendations for best practice that are extracted from excellent performance. They are also creating resources that educate officers about the limitations and biases that act upon the human face recognition system, and how these may influence core policing activities.

Face Blindness Public Awareness Campaign Gets Underway!

Research from BU’s Centre for Face Processing Disorders was featured in a CBBC documentary today.  The film was entitled ‘My life: Who are you?’ and followed the journey of Hannah, a teenager with face blindness, as she participated in one of our training programmes and discusses the difficulties of everyday life.  The documentary also featured Hannah meeting another girl with face blindness for the first time, and her encounter with Duncan Bannatyne who also has the condition.

We are so pleased with the documentary, and felt the producers did an excellent job in portraying the condition with scientific accuracy, and in demonstrating the difficulties associated with face blindness.  Despite Hannah’s struggles she still maintains a positive attitude to life and the film does an excellent job of presenting her as the remarkable young lady that she is, who was so keen to make the film in order to raise public awareness of the condition.  Hannah’s story illustrates how life can be affected by brain injury, but her remarkable positivity shines through as the programme follows her journey.

If you missed the programme you can watch it here:

We recently launched an e-petition that aims to promote public and professional awareness of prosopagnosia by campaigning for its discussion in the House of Commons.  We need to gain 100,000 signatures to make this happen, so if you were moved by the documentary, please do add your signature:

Our public awareness campaign has only just taken off so watch this space for more activities!

Engaging students: The Research Apprenticeship Summer Scheme in the Psychology Research Centre

In the last round of applications to the Fusion Investment Fund Dr Ben Parris, Dr Sarah Bate and Professor Sine McDougall from the Psychology Research Centre applied for, and were awarded, funds to pay for five summer placement positions that enabled our most promising students to gain a greater insight into life as researchers on a full-time basis. For a period of 9 weeks the students became part of one of the research laboratories in Psychology.  The students were responsible for experiment preparation, data collection, and data preparation and joined in lab discussions. Three RA positions were open calls; two were allied to REF impact case studies. All 2nd year students were invited to apply for the positions. Linking in with the employability strand on the undergraduate course the students were asked to provide an up-to-date CV and a 500-word summary on how the summer placement scheme would benefit them in their future career. The five selected candidates were housed in P106, which was converted into dedicated office space where the RAs could base themselves over the summer period and interact with each other and with postgraduate students and members of staff.

The scheme had a large impact on research. The five students on the scheme contributed to literature reviews, data collection, experiment programming and lab discussions for several members of staff in the Psychology Research Centre. Whilst they were each allied to a particular member of staff, others in the Centre sought their help when there was a bit of down time on the main project on which they were working. Whilst it is too early to list research outputs that have benefitted from this scheme, clearly the data collected, the literature reviewed, and the experiments programmed have all contributed towards the research goals of members of the Psychology Research Centre. Overall, data from over 200 participants were collected at a time when it is particularly difficult to recruit and test participants. Moreover, given that the scheme represents effective training for those seeking a career in academia, the full-time positions gave students the opportunity to engage in professional practice. Furthermore, by allying two positions with impact case studies the scheme involved their engagement with bodies external to the university (e.g. Poole Hospital).

Feedback from the students themselves provides useful insight into the utility of the scheme to them. All students reported great satisfaction with the scheme, having learned how to conduct a piece of research properly. They report having learned useful technical skills that they can apply to their final year projects. Most importantly they report direct benefits for their final year of study. Not only have they used their time wisely in thinking about the project which forms a large part of their final year (and degree as a whole) but the students reported that one of the biggest benefits was improvements in article reading skills.  Two of the students commented how extra reading for lectures now seems a lot easier; they can now read and extract important information in half the time.  This has enabled them to explore a much broader range of papers, which has increased their understanding of Psychology.  One student wrote ‘My general understanding of Psychology has been greatly improved, igniting a much stronger passion for the subject than I have ever felt before and the impact that this has had on my University work is extremely valuable to me’. Another wrote ‘Since starting back in term one, I have found that reading journal articles has become an easier process for me. I am now able to look at any article from any topic area and understand more fully what I’m reading, and where to go to find the information that is relevant for the task at hand’. As a final example, one of this year’s RAs wrote ‘The opportunity to continue to study, conduct research and become more familiar with programs such as SPSS throughout the summer means that the return to the final year is considerably less daunting and I feel more confident about designing and conducting my own study’.

A final important consequence of this scheme neatly highlights one of the benefits of fusion.  Admittedly an unintended consequence of the scheme, engaging potential researchers of the future had the consequence of making researchers of the present feeling somewhat trapped in the past. One of the apprentices took it upon himself to introduce us to the potential of Twitter and Facebook for participant recruitment. This has now been incorporated into our participant recruitment strategy. The Facebook site attracted 80 ‘likes’ within a few days (I believe that number is now much higher) and has since been used to recruit participants.  This will increase the efficiency with which all members of the Psychology Research Centre complete research. In short, the masters became the apprentices.

Intranasal inhalation of oxytocin improves eye-witness identification: RDF grant report

In 2011 myself and Ben Parris from the Psychology Research Centre were awarded a small RDF grant to investigate whether intranasal inhalation of the hormone oxytocin can improve eye-witness identification.  We designed an experiment where participants viewed a short video-clip of a perpetrator stealing a wallet from someone’s bag.  Participants then inhaled either an oxytocin or placebo nasal spray, and after a 45 minute interval to allow central oxytocin levels to plateau, were presented with a line-up of ten faces from which they had to either select the perpetrator or state that he was absent.  To date we have tested 70 participants and found a facilitation in the oxytocin condition.  In a second experiment, we asked participants to complete the ‘One-in-Ten’ task, a test of spontaneous eye-witness memory that has been well-used in previous work.  Again, we found a clear facilitation in performance in the oxytocin condition.

These findings follow recent work that has demonstrated that oxytocin can improve face recognition performance in standard cognitive tasks in lab-based settings.  In addition, work from our lab is currently under review for publication demonstrating that oxytocin can improve face recognition in individuals with prosopagnosia (face blindness).  This RDF grant has therefore given us the funding to carry out key investigations demonstrating novel applications of oxytocin inhalation in more applied settings.

I also presented findings from the oxytocin project at the April meeting of the Experimental Psychological Society, and was delighted to meet Dr Markus Bindemann from the University of Kent who is something of an expert in eye-witness identification.  We are now collaborating with Markus, and have plans to develop a bid to the Leverhulme Trust on the back of the publications that we hope will result from these investigations.  We are also about to welcome a new PhD student to our lab, who will be further developing the forensic aspect of this work in more real-world national security settings.

The pump-priming that was made available to us via the RDF scheme has provided us with the opportunity to collect the initial data and publication basis that we need to develop a large external bid, and we hope that this is the beginning of a fruitful line of research for our laboratory.

BU Centre for Face Processing Disorders featured in the Independent

Bournemouth University’s new Centre for Face Processing Disorders (supported by HEIF and Fusion funds) was recently featured in an article in the Independent newspaper,  together with quotes from BU’s Dr Sarah Bate.

Sarah’s work to date has explored the cognitive presentation and treatment of face processing deficits in adults and children with a range of neuropsychological conditions, such as developmental or acquired prosopagnosia (face blindness), autistic spectrum disorder, and Moebius syndrome.  The Face Centre was launched in response to the large amount of media attention generated by Sarah’s research.  After Sarah’s work was featured in The Guardian newspaper and in a BBC1 documentary last year, she has been contacted by over 700 people who believe they have prosopagnosia and would like to participate in her research.  Given that most investigations into prosopagnosia to date have examined relatively small numbers of cases, Sarah now has the unique opportunity to develop large-scale academic and societal impact by having the resources to test this large patient group.

You can read the full article in the Independent here.

Follow the events in the Centre on their webpage or via Twitter (@BUfacecentre).