Saturday, June 14, 2008

Trouble recognizing faces?

Oliver Sacks brought prosopagnosia to public consciousness a few decades with his provocative story about a neurological patient with a temporal lobe lesion in a location we now know as the fusiform face area.

But only recently have researchers begun to study congenital (or developmental) prosopagnosia.

After attending some scientific talks on children and adults who have grown up with this disorder,I began to wonder: Do I have prosopagnosia?

Always on the low-end of the face-perception ability continuum...Examples:

2005. Walking up the stairs in the History building, I was surprised to come upon my former housemate P, who I hadn't seen in a while but who I knew worked in a building a few blocks away. She brightened to see me, and I blurted out, "Hi, P, What are you doing here?"

"What --this is my building, my office is just over there."

So she's not P, but she knows me and I don't yet know who she is. I think she didn't hear the P salutation in the mix of walking up stairs and the unexpected meeting. Hm..

"Oh, I guess I didn't realize your office was here. Well, how are you doing anyway?"

We chatted, and she dropped a name of a mutual friend, and I realized she was S, a political science professor who I'd met a few times at Faculty for a Humane Foreign Policy and she also had showed up to a party at my house.

I felt bad for the awkward exchange because she's someone I like and would like to know more -- what is wrong with me? I resolved to be more careful, told myself not to jump to conclusions when I run into a person in an unexpected context, study people's faces if I expect to run into them again and try to memorize their features.

Imagine the challenges of following the plot when multiple TV characters are of the same race, body type and hair color

I used to call it my problem with the films of the 1940s and 1950s because the males were all whtite and wore suits, and the women had homogenous clothing and hair style. But the intimacy and constant mental sharing of marriage has made me realize that my bad face perception is more than just a quirk, because H has started to say that my problems watching TV are "scary."

At first he doubted I could be as bad I am and had some chuckles at my expense.

When watching TV together, when a promo or clip for a new show would appear, H would say, "Ok, who is that actor? What show did we see him in?"

And for me, its as if I've never seen that actor before. I'll ask for hints. I'll try to think of who matches the gender, height, body type, etc of the unknown actor. I'm then embarrassed to learn its the actress who played the mother on Six Feet Under or someone else whose face I must have seen 50 times. Although I enjoyed Trixie on Deadwood, I had little recognition for her on her brief appearance on Lost.

In an interesting twist, when the actor speaks, I may suddenly realize who it is, just as I'm unimpaired at recognizing friends' voices on the phone.

Distinctive faces help. I'm good with Hugh Laurie, even when he speaks in his British accent.

Early on in a drama, I frequently must ask H for help -- is that the same person now? Which character is that one?

In Battlestar Gallactica, Saul Tigh consorts with the imprisoned Six, and imagines he is seeing the face of his wife Ellen. I was impressed with the subtle means by which the director had conveyed this, asking H after the show, "Did you notice that they made-up Six's face to resemble Ellen?"

H: "No, that was the actress who played Ellen! They changed the actress. You're kidding, right?"

me: Really? They shot back and forth between the two actress' faces?

H: "Now you're scaring me."

So when I brought home a computerized test to diagnosis prosopagnosia, H was enthusiastic. Yes, he'd do it too, what a good idea. I realized he was reacting the way one does when one's disabled spouse finally wants to confront her disability.

Next: My results (and H's) from the Cambridge Face Perception Test.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have a look at faceblind@yahoogroups. There's a lot of us out there.