The bewildering curse of face blindness

You have trouble remembering a name? Imagine being unable even to remember a face.

Oliver Sacks, the remarkable physician/writer/author/professor of neurology — what does he do in his spare time? — wrote a long and fascinating article in a recent (August 30) New Yorker in which he details a lifelong affliction with face blindness, officially known as prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. What Sacks doesn’t do in his spare time is socialize comfortably. It’s hard to be comfortable when you might walk right past your best friend. (Or greet a perfect stranger you think is your next-door neighbor.)

I had made it through seven decades (Sacks and I happen to be the same age, but that’s about where the similarities end) without ever hearing of face blindness. Then one day renowned artist Chuck Close turned up on PBS NewsHour, discussing a new biography. At some point in the program Close mentioned that he was face blind. Come on, I said to myself and the TV screen. A creative genius known worldwide for, among other things, his remarkable portraits and he doesn’t know faces? Close went on to talk of how he works from photographs, largely because once he reduces a face to two dimensions he can commit the image to memory.

Sacks theorizes that the “flattening” allows Close to memorize certain features. “Although I myself am unable to recognize a particular face,” Sacks writes, “I can recognize various things about a face: that there is a large nose, a pointed chin, tufted eyebrows, or protruding ears.” But he is better at recognizing people by the way they move, their “motor style.” He is “reasonably good at judging age and gender, though I have made a few embarrassing blunders.”

Sacks writes that he avoids parties, conferences and large gatherings as much as possible in order not to have the inevitable embarrassment it brings. Consideration of how difficult it has to be to negotiate through life with such a problem makes the common complaint of, say, blanking on an old friend’s name (and don’t we all!) so trivial as to be embarrassing itself.

Sacks cites the work of research scientist Ken Nakayama, who “is doing so much to promote the scientific understanding of prosopagnosia.” Nakayama heads the Prosopagnosia Research Center at Harvard, on whose Web site one can learn about symptoms, causes, history and where the name came from (the Greek word for face: prosopon.) You can also find, on the site, tests and questionnaires to assess your own face recognition. Sacks is particularly appreciative of a notice posted on Nakayama’s own site which reads: “Recent eye problems and mild prosopagnosia have made it harder for me to recognize people I should know. Please help by giving your name if we meet. Many thanks.”

A very small gesture, for those who take face recognition for granted.

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