Sunday, 23 October 2016

I’ve Got Those Post-QED Blues

Ever since I joined the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society (GMSS) they’ve been talking about something called QED. A conference? For £99? I’ve been to conferences before. They’re often dull, tedious affairs where you get stuck talking to people. Not anything to get excited about. 

As the event drew nearer, I saw the list guest speakers: Prof Richard Wiseman, Prof Caroline Watt, Dr Sue Blackmore. Psychologists I have referenced in my dissertation! This looks interesting. As I got to know my fellow skeptics and they became friends, more and more were going. Some were even volunteering.

“There’s a free day you say? Called Skepticamp?” The Friday before the two day event is day where activists can share their experiences and passions in a series of talks. Following the success of my EVP talk at the GMSS Soapbox event I volunteered to discuss my research. So I was going to one of the days at least…

Then I was extremely fortunate to receive a free ticket for the full conference (Sat and Sun). I am so glad I did as I would have missed a wonderful, enlightening experience. I heard some amazing talks and met so many interesting like-minded people. I have many highlights but here are just some:

-        Prof. Caroline Watt’s talk on Koestler Unit at Edinburgh University (pre-QED talk at GMSS)
-        Dr Sue Blackmore on her out of body experience
-        A paranormal panel with Prof. Caroline Watt, Sue Blackmore, Hayley Stevens and Deborah Hyde
-        Paul Zenon ‘Secrets of the Psychics’
-        The Quirkology room filled with visual illusions
-        Learning magic tricks with Dave Alnwick

The skeptical movement has a lot to offer. It has crossover with many disciplines and unlimited scope. As with any collection people motivated by a unifying force, it can fall into the trap of being closed to the very groups it is trying to engage. This point was made at the conference and there were some great examples of ‘reaching out’ to the wider community, such as The Paranormal Challenge and Glasgow Skeptics. 

My thoughts on the debate between skeptics and believers is documented on this blog You’ll never change minds if you only talk to those who agree with you!

I would like to thank the organisers, speakers and volunteers at QED for a wonderful experience. I now have post-QED blues and like many others will be counting down the months until the next one. 

Sunday, 2 October 2016

High School Reunion: Face and Name Recognition

I went to my 20 year high school reunion this weekend. I'd originally discounted the idea but braved it as I didn't want to regret not going. Needless to say I was nervous. Once I was on my way my 'extrovert' cover kicked in and I was ready... I'm pleased to say it was a good night and I'm glad I went.

This post isn't to detail the evening but to discuss what was a real-life demonstration of the way our brains process names and faces. Many people will say: "I'm not good at remembering names but I never forget a face!". This is true for most of us. Our facial recognition system is excellent. 

As social animals we are predisposed to detect, store and recognise faces. The more we see a face to stronger the memories become so we can recognise that person in different settings. This also includes other relevant semantic information (occupation, family members, voice etc). Names are not as important for survival so are processed differently.

Whilst we might retrieve semantic information about that person without recalling their name we don’t recall their name without also retrieving the semantic information. Perceptual classification, i.e. judging whether a face is familiar, occurs before semantic classification. A person’s name is accessed last (Bruce and Young, 1986). I must be slightly odd as I encountered an extra scenario (3):

1. I recognised the face and remembered the name
2. I recognised the face but couldn't remember the name
3. I recognised the name but couldn't remember the associated image from school

There are also other peculiarities regarding how we process faces. For example, we find it harder to recognise faces from different ethnic groups. This has obvious implications for eye witness testimony. We are unable to note distortions in faces if the image is presented upside down (Thatcher Effect). We easily see faces in inanimate objects, such as clouds, tree bark (pareidolia).

There are conditions where the process does not work as above. Prosopagnosia (face blindness) is a deficit in face perception whilst other functions remain intact. A more extreme version is Capgras syndrome where the person recognises the face but does not have the associated emotions so believes that person is an 'imposter'. Worst still, Cotard delusion is where you fail to have emotions regarding your own face so believe you are dead!

So next time you forget a name just blame it on your brain! It’s perfectly normal. My recommendation for 25 year school reunion? Name badges!