Super-Recogniser with the police: The man who never forgets a face

Exceptional ability
Super-Recogniser with the police: The man who never forgets a face

Two percent of the population have the special ability of face recognition like Michael Aschenbrenner

© Marijan Murat / DPA

For a long time Michael Aschenbrenner did not know what kind of ability he was lying dormant: He is a super recognizer. That means he can recognize faces particularly well. Now he hunts criminals with it.

Apart from his brown mustache, Michael Aschenbrenner is more of the inconspicuous kind. Calm voice, neat hairstyle, pleasant manner. No face that you inevitably memorize. In return, the 32-year-old remembers other faces all the better. Michael Aschenbrenner is a so-called Super Recognizer with the Stuttgart police. This describes a gift that is both simple and special: He is particularly good at recognizing faces. Scientists estimate that two percent of the population have this ability. Aschenbrenner is one of them.

It was more by chance that science discovered a few years ago that there are people who cannot forget faces or who can recognize people in blurry photos. This can be useful in the fight against crime. Police officers are flooded with shaky mug shots and dark images from surveillance cameras on which only contours can be seen. Then Michael Aschenbrenner comes into play. He coordinates around 50 Super Recognizers in the Stuttgart Police Headquarters alone. You can not only identify the faces of suspects in pictures, but also recognize them very well in crowds.

“At some point your eyes will burn”

What sounds a little like superhero comics and action-packed adventure turns out to be a rather boring activity in everyday life. Michael Aschenbrenner sits in his office in the presidium and looks at the computer. A certificate from the University of Greenwich in London hangs on the wall, recognizing him as a Super Recognizer. Otherwise: gray walls, gray furniture, gray shirt. Only the mug shots on the screens are brightly colored. Aschenbrenner’s eyes twitch back and forth between the pictures, he compares them with the photos from the archive. “At some point your eyes will burn,” he says. Still, he loves his job. This is also due to the success of the young team of specialists.

The night of the Stuttgart riot was the litmus test for the Stuttgart super-recognizers. “That was our baptism of fire,” says Aschenbrenner. Aschenbrenner and his colleagues were seconded for six months to sift through thousands of shaky photos of violent criminals and rioters. Of the 140 suspects that have been identified so far, around half are on the account of the recognisers.

The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of the Interior is relying more and more on the Super Recognizers. Officials with this talent are to be deployed nationwide at all police headquarters in the country in the future. “This potential will help us to identify more criminals and thus bring them to justice,” said Interior Minister Thomas Strobl (CDU) in the spring. Now every police student can be tested for talent. The London police set up a unit years ago, and the police in Hesse and Bavaria also use the recognizers.

Forensic anthropologists do the same thing

Friedrich Rösing does a very similar job from Blaubeuren in the Alb-Donau district. The 77-year-old professor is one of the few forensic anthropologists in Germany. Rösing helps in court proceedings to identify perpetrators in photos and thus convict them. Even identical twins can almost always distinguish his profession, says Rösing. He welcomes the work of the Super Recognizers. He does not fear competition from people with innate talent. The forensic anthropologist is still needed in court, says Rösing. In contrast to Aschenbrenner, Rösing works scientifically and methodically, he works his way around 260 features – does the ear stick out? Is the bottom of the nose hanging? Is the mouth slanted?

With Aschenbrenner, on the other hand, it just “clicks” – then he knows that he has seen a face before. Like during the police exercise in downtown Stuttgart, when he accidentally discovered a face in the crowd that also made a “click”. The exercise spontaneously became a “real case”. Aschenbrenner and his colleagues arrested a man who was wanted for a drug offense. He’s often out there too, keeping an eye out for pickpockets at the Christmas market or for hooligans in the stadium. In order to remember faces, he assigns character traits to them or associates them with a good friend or an actor. But his talent is limited to the visual realm. “I can’t remember names at all,” he says.

tis / Nico Pointner

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