Today I attended “The 7th International Conference on Neuroesthetics” which was held on the University of California, Berkeley campus. The conference was primarily a series of lectures about facial recognition, and the lack of it by people with a condition called prosopagnosia, which is sometimes called face-blindness. Sometimes, these people acquired the condition by being brain injured in an accident and sometimes they are born with it.
An early report, “Quaglino, 1867 – “Mr LL, a 54-year-old bank clerk from Turin, a strong and healthy man … on February 28th, 1865 … fell unexpectedly on the floor, unconscious … He recovered after several days … I examined him a year after his stroke … At this stage, his near and far vision was excellent, and he could read even the smallest characters extremely well. As he joked, he could have hunted the tiniest birds from the tops of the trees. … he could not clearly discern objects presented to his left side (left hemianopia) … Of all colours, he could only distinguish white and black. Having presented him with a series of large characters in various colours, in fact, he failed to name any of the colours … He also noticed that he had completely lost the ability to remember faces, the facades of house, and familiar scenes. I remember, he said, the names of my friends when I meet them, but as soon as they have turned their backs to me, I no longer recall their features.””
An extreme example of this condition is Lincoln Holmes who can see perfectly well – but he cannot recognize his own face.
People with prosopagnosia may have normal vision, but somehow they don’t have the ability to automatically assemble the various parts of their view of a face into a coherent conception of an individual face. It seems they have to intellectually assemble the various components of a face by looking at the various parts. But with their condition their brain doesn’t automatically click the images into a completely recognizable face. They can’t recognize their own friends by their faces but must look at some detail such as their clothes. For most of us this clicking together, and recognition of a friend’s face is automatic and takes place almost instantly. We see faces, and recognize many things about them instantly and without effort.
For example, a normal person would see a face when looking at this image, and if they knew the person instantly know who they were –
but a person suffering from prosopagnosia would see something like this –
or even worse. It is a bit difficult to communicate what they are actually seeing, and perceiving because their total view and acuity can be excellent; it is the assembling of the eyes’ images into a coherent whole automatically which is faulty, and their view it isn’t described as being blurry. For these people the image just doesn’t seem to stay assembled into an individually recognizable face, and they must use words to identify the face, and then remember the description to remember the face. For examplethe face above might be described as: Full lower lip, drooping eyelid, exposed nostrils, arched eyebrow, slight wrinkle dropping from the corners of the mouth. Part of the problem is that that list of words becomes too long and difficult to remember, and also one must stop, and think up something that groups several unique items together. From a separate personal problem I developed Probaway-Habits. Perhaps those suggestions may offer some possible help. See numbers 24, 27, 40, 56, 59, 65, 68, 73, 168, 170, 174, 185, 192, 211, 213, 228, 229, 386. A blind friend of mine has developed a remarkable ability to identify people by their voice alone.
Jeff Hawkins‘ book On Intelligence (website) describes how all the brain areas are very similar in physical tissue, and tissue organization. It is the input from various locations, eye, ear, finger or nose that determines what the particular bit of brain does with basically the same type of electro-chemical input. At any given brain location the input goes through six layers of organization, and is in turn throughput to the next layer which in its turn creates organization, and is throughput to the next layer. There is a constant feedback looping to the various layers until a consciousness is presented. It is only the final organized data on the last level that becomes the information which becomes conscious to the person observing the original external event. With some persons with prosopagnosia there is actual injured brain tissue, or absent tissue, or non-functioning tissue in the Hawkins’ sense. It is still an enigma, but with active research there may be some helpful results developed. Some things of particular interest are: the impaired holistic processing of the face, in particular the loss of diagnosticity of the eyes and for some reason an increased reliance on the mouth region.
For me, with normal vision, what the lecturers described was similar to what I experience when I look at 3-D pictures without using a proper stereo viewing scope. I have to point my eyes consciously and separately to an infinity distance point, beyond the picture, but focus each eye up close. When I do it just right I see in 3-Dimensions. The wikipedia article on stereoscopy shows some pictures which you can look at to get more of a theoretical understanding of 3-D.
This is a separate issue from prosopagnosia but it may be helpful for you normally sighted people to get a feel of the problem the prosopagnosiacs are facing. If you look at the pictures below you can, if you have the ability, feel and see the stereo image click into view. This all happens in your brain more than in your eyes and you can feel it happen. With a person with prosopagnosia this same assemblage of parts of a face doesn’t appear to click into a whole perception of a face. Below is a face from the New York Stereoscopic Society.
Observe how your emotions and your brain feel a bit dazed and confused just a second before the images resolve into a stereo 3-D image.
Try and resolve this into 3-D and while you do try and feel your eyes and brain working. It is worth the effort, and there is more than one mental effect you will get.
If you can’t make that one work the one below may be a little easier.
To get more on prosopagnosia go to:Macquarie University – the site has some perception tests.
The Wikipedia site on Prosopagnosia
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Berkeley Science review article on prosopagnosia.
At the conference they said that it was previously thought that prosopagnosia was a very rare condition, but now that it is being researched it is thought that as many as two percent of the general population may have it. By the time people with the condition are adult they have usually worked out various strategies for coping with the problem. However, being isolated individuals they may not know that they have a treatable problem, and that there are techniques which others may have discovered which may be helpful to them. So, if you have trouble recognizing faces check out some of the sites listed above.