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Super recognizers can recognize a face that is mostly obscured, blurry, out of focus or one in a crowd of many faces.

Do you always recognize minor extra characters on television? Or remember a face you’ve met fleetingly and the time and place it occurred? It might not be just a quirky skill you possess; you could have a super power!

Sharrona Pearl, PhD, an associate teaching professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, explored the super power, known as super recognition, in her article “A Super Useless Super Hero: The Positive Framing of Super Recognition,” recently published in Semiotic Review.

Pearl discussed the history of the mostly-unheard-of condition and how there is limited information and representation of it. She also looked into what it means to compare super recognition to its polar “opposite” on the recognition spectrum, prosopagnosia (total face blindness or an inability to recognize faces that should be familiar).

According to Pearl, total face blindness has been a known condition since ancient times and was formally named in 1947. The first published paper on super recognition was only published in 2009. The condition is very rare, with estimates ranging from 2-2.5 percent of the overall population.

Super recognition and total face blindness are often studied in contrast. Pearl looked at how these “opposing” ends of the spectrum actually are similar.

“Really, the two poles have a lot in common,” said Pearl. “On both sides, there is a lot of social deception but with a huge difference: super recognizers learn to pretend they don’t recognize people, and prosopagnosiacs try to pretend they do recognize people.”

With limited representation of super recognition, it’s often viewed as a super power. There is even less information on potential drawbacks of this super power. Anecdotally, some known super recognizers lament there is social awkwardness when they openly admit recognizing someone who doesn’t reciprocate.

“Super recognition is a super power, and we aren’t quite as concerned about the challenges of super powers if we can use them to save the world,” said Pearl.

Another minor setback, as more people come to understand this ability and learn that they have it, they are not sure what to do with it.

“The ones who aren’t being put to work (which is most of them) are honing their abilities in daily life and on TV, preparing to save the world, or at least identifying extras on television,” said Pearl.

There are opportunities for super recognizers in law enforcement, specifically in London. Super recognizers have the ability to identify faces that have aged significantly or changed looks. They can recognize a face that is mostly obscured, blurry, out of focus or one in a crowd of many faces. This makes super recognizers better than face recognition software, which needs two photos taken in ideal conditions to make a match.

Because of this, London’s police force uses super recognizers to identify previously unidentified criminals caught on London’s well-known, large closed-circuit television system.

But the lack of representation and limited exploration around super recognizers misses opportunities to learn about technical and neurological processes, as well as psychosocial and political implications.

Pearl added, “The is also much to be learned from how supers form relationships and how they understand faces encountered both interpersonally and through the media.”

 Media interested in speaking to Pearl should contact Annie Korp at 215-571-4244 or amk522@drexel.edu.

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