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Random Thoughts About Memory: Names And Faces

I have been subscribing to The New Yorker magazine for over 25 years, enjoying innumerable articles of interest spanning issues as disparate as bananas (and the threat thereto) to St. Augustine. However, my favorite contributor to the magazine has been Dr. Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology at NYU School of Medicine, author of Awakenings and Musicphilia who passed away on August of 2015.  In an article written for The New Yorker in August of 2010, Dr. Sacks wrote about his lifelong struggles with an inability to recognize faces, known as prosopagnosia.

This deficit was quite profound for Dr. Sacks as he wrote of being unable to recognize his assistant, Kate, after working with her for six years, when encountered in unfamiliar territory. He also noted that she would ask the guests to his birthday party to wear name tags. This deficit also extended to his recognition of places, describing how he once became lost in his own neighborhood for two hours before his landlord spotted him and called him over. 

Dr. Sacks assumed that he was just “very bad at recognizing faces” and that it was “within the limits of normal variation” until he visited his brother in Australia, whom he had rarely seen over the preceding 35 years, discovering that he, too, had “exactly the same difficulties recognizing faces and places”, at which point he realized that their condition was unique and attributable to the aforementioned diagnosis.

Dr. Sacks goes on to relate the history of neurology whereby Paul Broca discovered Broca’s area, the frontal lobes of the left side, which if damaged could result in expressive aphasia (the inability to speak), leading to what Dr. Sacks described as the famous statement “We speak with the left hemisphere”. Dr. Sacks ultimately opines that the area in charge of facial recognition has been located in the “fusiform face area” in the underside of the occipitotemporal cortex. Thus, Dr. Sacks spoke of both the neurological and the genetic causes of his condition.

This leads me to ponder my own peculiar deficit which is remembering names. Faces are no problem, those are remembered for years, and yet ultimately learning and retaining people’s names is a significant struggle for me and generally occurs only after significant contact over a period of time.

Nominal aphasia is a term used to describe an inability to remember names in a broad context, but my version is related to people only and I assume is relatively “within the limits of normal variation”. Nonetheless, it is bothersome and leads me to ponder the genetic/neurological variables involved. Thus, if you see me out and about, and I forget your name, don’t blame me – it’s something to do with my parents or my brain!

John Brennan, JD, LPJohn Brennan, JD, PsyD is an Associate Faculty member at MSP.