Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Prosopagnosia: Facing the Facts About Face-Blindness

In 1976 NASA had their eyes on Mars. The Viking program was well underway and humans were at the cusp of getting up close and personal with the red planet. The plan was for the spacecraft Viking 1 to circle Mars and photograph possible landing sites for its sister ship Viking 2. After narrowing down possible landing sites, Viking 2 would be sent to the surface and the super-nerds in Houston could pop some bubbly. While doing its reconnaissance work however, Viking 1 snapped a picture that shocked not only the scientists at NASA, but the entire planet. The picture was of a human face staring up from the surface of Mars.

Conspiracy theorists and alien enthusiasts quickly began postulating the existence of subterranean Martian civilizations, touting the face as proof that humans are just transplanted people from our celestial neighbor. It wasn’t until 2001 when the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft re-photographed the same geologic feature that the face controversy was put to bed. It was just a pretty distinct hill with some convenient shadows. In hindsight we should have known right away that it wasn’t actually a face, it isn’t entirely our faults though. It turns out our brains are wired to find faces everywhere they look.

If you’ve ever read a news story about a piece of toast that looks like Jesus or a bagel that looks like Elvis, you know what I’m talking about. One of the easiest things in the world is imagining a face where one doesn’t exist. We even have a specific chunk of our brains with the designated job of finding faces. It’s called the fusiform gyrus, but its function is so specific that most scientists just call it the fusiform face area. Under an fMRI scan if you show someone an apple the fusiform gyrus will stay as silent as a mouse, but show the same person a face and it will light up like the Fourth of July.

It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. We humans are some of nature’s most social creatures. We have large families, even larger circles of friends, and most of us live together in clusters with populations in the thousands or even millions. If your brain wasn’t insanely well-equipped to quickly sort out friends, enemies, and former employers from the crowd your life would be a lot tougher.

Unfortunately for some of us, this actually is the case. Recent research as begun to reveal that as many as one in every 50 people might suffer from at least mild face-blindness, known as prosopagnosia on more formal occasions. The term face-blindness likely gives you the wrong idea about the disorder. Someone with prosopagnosia doesn’t see a blank skin mask when they look at the front part of a person’s head. They can see eyes and noses and mouths and ears just like the rest of us. The problem is, that is all they see. The pieces don’t come together to form a single coherent picture that allows them to recognize the people they interact with. Imagine if I showed you a line up of noses, just noses, and asked you to identify one of them. Odds are you would have a tough time even if one of them belonged to your mother.

Prosopagnosia comes in a full spectrum of intensities. On the milder end, you might have a hard time recognizing when someone you saw in one movie appears in another. On the severe side, you might not be able to recognize yourself in a photograph. Famed psychiatrist and author Oliver Sacks didn’t realize that he was face-blind until he was well into middle-age, despite having a particularly severe case. Sacks has apparently failed to recognize his own therapist in encounters at the grocery store, missed his assistant of 6 years in a hotel lobby he went to specifically to meet up with her, and has over and over again “apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man was myself in a mirror.”

Funny stories aside, prosopagnosia can be a source of immense frustration for the people it afflicts and the people they fail to recognize. Imagine if you had to convince your spouse that you were you every time to met them at the movies or the mall. The quirks would get old fast. That is why face-blind people often come up with other ways to recognize their close contacts. Someone who always wears pink shoes or has an affinity for large hats, for example, would make a great best friend for a prosopagnosia patient.

Face-blindness can either be lifelong or the result of brain trauma from an accident or a stroke. Regardless of how it is picked up or how severe it is, prosopagnosia makes a great get-out-of-jail free card for that guy at the office whose name you can never remember.


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