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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Prospagnosiacs recognized!

(Note, March 20, 2009: All this while I've been spelling this wrong! The word is "prosopagnosia", not "prospagnosia"! So this title should be "Prosopagnosiacs recognized!" But changing that would screw up the url, whilch would undo a stitch in the tapestry of the Internet, which would undermine the fabric of space-time, which could lead to the destruction of the multiverse. And we wouldn't want that, would we?)

The July 17, 2006 issue of TIME magazine has an article about Prospgnosia Prosopagnosia on page 36. Called "Do I Know You?", it's a light introduction to and overview of the condition that has some interesting insights ("While mild prosopagnosics [sic; I have always used prospagnosiac] can train themselves to memorize a limited number of faces [it's said to be like learning to distinguish one stone from another], others grapple with identifying family members and, in extreme cases, their own faces") but very few resource citations ("Burman made her first contact with felow prosopagnosics on an Internet mailing list..." - where? what URL?).

One of the main insights is that this "rare" condition ain't so rare - it may affect as many as one in 50 Americans. If one out of every 50 people were to suddenly burst into flames, I don't think you'd call that condition "rare"!*

My own description of the condition, from one of my first blog entries:
I can't remember major specific details of a person's face. If they have huge scars, or bad teeth, or an enormous, misshapen nose, I can remember that no problem, but otherwise my recollection of faces is "He has a head shaped like an apple...with a chin...two eyes...brown hair, or maybe blonde...." Any description I can give is usually a record of imperfections. I have never been able to draw specific faces...general faces, yes, I can construct a face wholly out of imagination, but don't ask me to sketch your face, or you'll wind up with something generic and abstract, or something technically similar to your face, but lacking in humanity. I can usually recognize people in specific situations (work friends at work, friends in their own houses, friends of friends because of the people they associate with), but in the wild, I can sail right past a friend without recognizing them, or (more frighteningly) think I've made a "match" with a friend's face when in fact I'm looking at a total stranger. Surprisingly, I can often recognize people based on their hair color and style. I usually tell people that I have a very small memory buffer, and it fills up from the top down, so by the time I reach the face, it's full. For some reason, this condition also affects my ability to recognize cars. Good thing we have license plates.
I recently had reason to leave my small, isolated Fortress of Solitude at work and go out into the Big Wide World, where 14 years worth of my co-workers are scattered nearly anywhere but where they were when I worked with them. I found myself staring blankly at a half-a-dozen old friends, not recognizing them until I heard their voices, including one with whom I shared an office for several years, with whom I took my only trip to Los Angeles, and who scrapes doorways at a height of nearly seven feet! ("...They distinguish people based on cues like hairstyle, voice, gait, or body shape...They avoid places where they could unexpectedly run into someone they know...They act friendly to everyone - or to no one...") Maybe now people will understand why I will sometimes say, with a touch of disappointment, "You've changed your hairstyle" (since now I have to re-memorize them all over again!), or why my own personality seems to shift radically with major haircuts (I am, in my eyes, a different person, so I allow myself to behave like one.)

Check out the article and follow my links to learn more. Who knows - maybe you're one of those one-in-fifties!

*Maybe "well-done."

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