Saturday, August 28, 2010

August 27 2010: It is with our faces

It is with our faces that we face the world … and it is by our faces that we can be recognized as individuals. Oooo … heavy stuff to read on a plane trip to WDC!

I had picked up a copy of the New Yorker to read on the plane to WDC on our visit to see Matt and his fiancĂ©e Jessica and came across the article “Face – Blind”. It was written by an aging neurologist who had come to terms with his inability to recognize faces or places. It was (and is) a life long issue that he has dealt with personally and in his practice. Over the years it has gradually become known as not a psychological issue but a neurological issue and predominantly genetic in origin although trauma can also induce change to the brain. The medical term is “prosopagnosia” for not recognizing faces. Visual agnosia is the term for not being able to recognize faces or their emotions. Topographical agnosia is the term for not being able to recognize locations or routes taken or even your house if you are walking by it. Virtually all people with prosopagnosia have damage to an area called “fusiform gyrus” in the form of lesions that are identifiable via MRI and CT scan.

People with prosopagnosia need to be resourceful and inventive in finding strategies for circumventing their deficits. Identifying particular traits such as; walking or gait, beard or moustache, glasses, voice are typical. Context is particularly important. Have you ever come across someone you knew but the context was totally outside of where you would expect to see them? Do you recognize someone because of the child they are with or the dog they walk but would not recognize them without the other associations?

Facial recognition in babies starts shortly after birth and by six months babies are able to recognize a variety of individual faces. From three to nine months babies learn to narrow their model of “faces” to those they are frequently exposed to. You may be able to relate to this … if your “model” of faces you recognize is Caucasian … Asian or Indian faces may, relatively speaking, tend to “look all the same”. The implications to me are that even though our “face cells” are present at birth they need lots of training and experience to fully develop to be able to recognize all of humanity.

This is a long way around to my own experience with growing a beard and then seven years later shaving it off and noticing the responses of those around me. I had all these observations but no framework of understanding to help me articulate what I was observing. When I first grew the beard in 2002 I was training for a marathon and it just seemed like something I wanted to try. I had a moustache for many years but a full beard was something I wanted to try. After growing the beard I noticed my sense of personal space that people felt comfortable affording me grew larger and more people would call me by name. Throughout the seven years of having the beard it seemed that people could recognize me more easily. The really interesting observations came after I shaved the beard off … some did not miss a beat in interacting with me and said “something is different” but they could not identify right away that it was the beard that was missing. What really stunned me were the people who saw me immediately after shaving and did not even know me until I spoke!

After reading Oliver Sacks article in the New Yorker I now understand some of the underlying issues behind the profound differences in facial recognition from the people who never seem to forget a face to the ones that go through life struggling to remember any face or place.

From a social justice perspective where entire classes of people are held as less than fully human because of their color or race I have come to know that fear and insecurity of the unknown is a big component of nativism, insularity and bigotry. Training our face cells of the model of diversity throughout life may be a component of humanity coming to terms with the fact that we are all one family.

Additional links: www.newyorker/com/go/outloud Oliver Sacks blog