I recently revisited an article for The New Yorker written by Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author, entitled “Face-Blind.” Initially, the article explores a condition suffered by Dr. Sacks known as “prosopagnosia”; the inability to recognize faces and places. Dr. Sacks initially discusses the importance of facial recognition to the human experience. “Our emotions, the open and instinctive emotions that Darwin wrote about, as well as the hidden and repressed ones that Freud wrote about, are displayed on our faces, along with our thoughts and intentions.” (p. 36). Yet, for the author there is no facial recognition, only the ability to recognize aspects of the face, such as bushy eyebrows, thick spectacles, or red hair, which enabled him to recognize his childhood friends.
Sacks writes how this may affect one’s sociability, as there arises a natural hesitation to engage with those one does not recognize, a shyness or what might be experienced by others as an aloofness. He ultimately notes that recent studies have established a physiological basis for this propensity, “lesions in the fusiform face area,” located on the underside of the occipitotemporal cortex. These findings were also corroborated by fMRI studies showing that looking at faces activated this area more strongly than looking at other test images.
Now that we are learning about face recognition difficulties, I can’t wait until we pin down the causes of my condition, “anomia,” the inability to remember names. I am great remembering faces, but names elude me. It takes much effort and familiarity for me to eventually master the face and the name. Is it lesions, poor physiological development, or injury to a particular part of my brain that causes my frustration?
Only time will tell. In the interim it’s good to know that science marches on, providing insight and understanding into the conditions which have plagued us, and which plagued the author, old whatshisname.
Sacks, O. (2010, August 30). Face-blind. The New Yorker, 86(25), 36.
By Dr. John Brennan, JD, PsyD, Associated Faculty at MSP