What’s It Like to Remember Every Face You’ve Ever Seen?

Inside the world of super recognizers

Everyone's memory is a little different.
Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

If you’ve read enough case studies about the strange ways in which the human mind can work, you’ve probably encountered the idea of prosopagnosia, or “face blindness.” In 2010, for instance, Oliver Sacks wrote about the condition — including his own experiences with it. But there’s another phenomenon that represents the opposite of this as well; in other words, people who remember virtually every face they’ve ever seen, including in the backgrounds of photographs and in crowd scenes in film and television.

These people have been dubbed “super recognizers,” and there’s an ongoing effort to study their powers of recognition – which has ramifications for understanding how the brain works, and might have applications for business and government. The University of Cambridge, for instance, has been conducting research on the subject, and has an online quiz where you can see if you yourself might be a super recognizer. (Full disclosure: I scored 11 out of a possible 14.)

A new article at The Guardian offers a detailed look at the life of one person with an extraordinary ability to remember faces. That’s Yenny Seo, who is believed to be in the top 50 super recognizers around the world. She told The Guardian that she first became aware of her skill after the advent of social media.

“I would start a new class in uni or I would meet people through social gatherings and I would remember visually what kind of photos I’d seen them in,” Yeo said.

As it turns out, the widespread use of face masks during the pandemic hasn’t impeded her ability to recognize faces all that much. Hers is a fascinating skill — and one that offers a doorway into just how we perceive one another.

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