People with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) have an obsession relating to their body image, where they believe that they have a defect in their appearance.

BDD is estimated to affect one to two per cent of the population. Individuals with BDD engage with time-consuming compulsive behaviors such as mirror-checking, applying make-up to camouflage and seeking reassurance about their appearance.

Professor Keith Laws, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire said of people with BDD; "often they are attractive individuals who focus negatively on specific features of their own body, especially their face. Indeed, up to 15% of people who seek cosmetic surgery meet the criteria for a BDD diagnosis.”

But there are other interesting characteristics of people with this mental health disorder. Individuals with BDD cannot accurately detect negative facial emotions; but they have an amazing ability to recognize famous faces - if they are upside-down.

Can you recognize this face upside down too?  Probably. But Individuals with BDD are more likely to identify upside-down images of famous faces as they focus on individual features rather than process them as a whole. Credit: Image courtesy of Pete Souza and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Upside-down faces are difficult for most people to identify because we are used to processing faces as a whole, and obviously the right way up. Individuals with BDD process faces in a different way because they overly-focus on the individual facial features. The researchers found that because BDD patients focus on individual facial features rather than the whole face, this aids their ability to recognize inverted famous faces. For example, they may have spent a lot of time on David Beckham’s eyes or Angelina Jolie’s lips. By contrast, they have difficulty recognizing negative and threatening facial expressions as different because they may imagine that most other people are looking at them as critically as they view themselves. 

Laws and colleagues are now looking at whether the super-recognizer abilities of BDD patients may act as a marker for the disorder and whether this advantage exists to a milder form in the relatives of those with BDD.

To be published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.