How informative are cognitive tests (Part 3 of 3)? The example from face blindness

I mentioned in my earlier posts that the sorts of cognitive tests you can find online are limited, because they don’t tell you much about *you*.

Except that, in some cases, they do.  As tests become more widely available, we are increasingly appreciating how many different types of human uniqueness there are.  Discovering that uniqueness can be eye-opening.

In this post, I want to focus on a disorder called prosopagnosia, or face blindness.

face blindness

Until very recently, the developmental form of face blindness was considered a “very rare disorder”.  The availability of web-based resources and assessment tools provided the means, however, for a large number of people with face blindness to identify themselves and learn about a problem they had been grappling with their entire lives.

Face blindness is a condition where an individual has difficulty recognizing faces, including those of close friends and family members.  We used to think that face blindness was caused by brain damage.  After a stroke (for example), some people would report that they suddenly had difficulty recognizing people.  That is, these individuals grew up with normal face recognition ability, and then acquired their face blindness as a result of brain trauma.   For many years, this was pretty much the whole story.   Then, in the 90s, as more and more people got connected to the internet, people who had never had the opportunity to communicate with one another before were exchanging stories of lifelong face recognition difficulties.  It was around this time that Bill Choisser, a vocal member of the growing community of people, coined the term “face blindness” to be more accessible to people outside of the medical and scientific communities.  Scientists typically call this condition developmental prosopagnosia (sometimes ‘congenital prosopagnosia’).

In 2005, I began working with Dr. Brad Duchaine at UCL (he’s at Dartmouth now).  At the time I began working with Brad, the word was just starting to really spread about face blindness and people were contacting us in the hundreds and soon thousands saying they thought they had the disorder and wanting to be tested.   Very few medical facilities or practitioners have the expertise or sensitive tests to detect developmental forms of face blindness.   We were one of the few labs that could reliably diagnose face blindness and so many people wanted to be tested to find out if their problems in everyday life could be explained by this condition.   In addition, there were tons of people who identified with the symptoms of face blindness but were hesitant to be tested because they were embarrassed or uncertain … people who thought, “Maybe I’m just not paying attention hard enough to people’s faces.” or (worse) “Maybe I’m just not that smart.”

We decided to put some face recognition tests online, so that we could test people remotely who were unable to travel to London to be tested in person.  We told people what the normal range of performance was for these tests, and we told them how people with face blindness typically perform.  Then one day, we thought, “Hey, why not make these tests publicly available?”  So that’s what we did.

Over the next year, tens of thousands of people took our tests.  Some people took the tests for fun and some to see how their face recognition abilities compared with the abilities of other people.  Most critically, people who suspected they had face blindness came to find out whether or not our carefully crafted face memory tests would offer them any insight into their lifelong problems with recognizing faces.

What we were doing was bigger than face recognition testing, however, or even face blindness.  We were part of a movement to take cognitive ability assessment out of the medical and research labs, and putting it directly into the hands of the public. Anyone could take these tests who had a computer and an internet connection.  For people with face blindness, these tests offered validation.  Even people with mild difficulties recognizing faces were often reassured by having a score that said “Yes, this is something that is harder for you than it is for other people.”

As science and medicine move out of the lab and into people’s everyday homes and workplaces, I suspect more and more people will be coming out of the woodwork (webwork?) with interesting and sometimes astounding quirks of cognition.  In addition to face blindness, recent discoveries have pointed to many other forms of human uniqueness, such as:

While results from web-based cognitive tests can be over-interpreted, they can also lead to insights into why we might see the world in a certain why and have the experiences we have.

So, take some tests.  If you know you are good at something (e.g. math) and do poorly on a test related to math performance, ignore the test result and go with your experience.  Similarly, if you have trouble with face recognition in everyday life but perform well on face recognition tests online or in the lab, that test just might be missing some element of real-life face recognition  that shapes your experience.

On the other hand, if a test result fits well with what you experience in everyday life, that test result may offer you some insight into your own particular form of human uniqueness.  It might help explain, just a little,  how a particular characteristic of your particular brain contributes to the everyday experiences and aptitudes that shape your life.

*Thank you to Mo Costandi at Neurophilosophy for the great neuropsychology material that I’ve linked to in this post.  Mo, if you ever want to discuss developmental deficits in object recognition memory, lemme know.

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One Response to How informative are cognitive tests (Part 3 of 3)? The example from face blindness

  1. Pingback: Do you suffer from face blindness? Seven signs and symptoms of prosopagnosia | Human Uniqueness

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