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But what makes a super-recognizer so super? No one’s quite sure what mechanism is at work. It could be genetic, physical, environmental—or some combination of these elements. What is clear, says Russell, is that human recognition abilities exist on a broad spectrum. One extreme is called prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize even the most familiar faces. “It can be as severe as [not recognizing your] children, or spouses, from the visual information of the face,” he says. On the other exist the super-recognizers, who appear to be a full two standard deviations above the average. But super-recognition doesn’t seem tied to IQ, object memory, or general processing abilities; it's a rare ability all its own.
As neurological phenomenons go, prosopagnosia and super-recognition are likely as old as our eyes. But they’re fairly recent additions to the literature. Super-recognizers were only studied for the first time in the last decade, while the word prosopagnosia originated only in 1947, and really came to the world’s attention only in Oliver Sacks’ 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. “It’s really a phenomenon of the Internet, that people got together and were comparing experiences… and it turns out, a lot of people can’t recognize faces,” Russell says. As prosopagnosia research grew, people who had an inkling they were on the far opposite end of the spectrum began to reach out to scientists and ask...
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