Monday, June 7, 2010

And I suddenly turn and see your fabulous blank.

The World Science Festival happened in New York last week. It brought forty compelling, provocative and inspiring events that illustrated, contemplated and celebrated science.

I only made it to one inspiring lecture because the rest of the time, well, I was slowly and mildly tortuously carving out a dissertation topic for myself. I attended “Strangers in the Mirror”. The topic was a neurological condition called “prosopagnosia”, or “face blindness”.

There were two invited speakers. One was Oliver Sacks, a neuroscientist who—in addition to practicing medicine—lovingly writes popular books that bring rare neurological conditions to public awareness. He wrote the book “Awakenings”, which then became a movie. The other guest was Chuck Close, a painter of the giant, astonishingly detailed portraits which, upon inspection, are composed of small repeating shapes, sometimes fingerprints, rips of paper or blobs and rings of beautiful interlocking colors.

Oliver’s stories always captivate and Chuck’s paintings provoke an almost unanimous sense of emotional and technical awe. Both of these men are “face blind”, which means that they cannot recognize the faces of people who they have already met. Clearly, this has caused difficulty in their lives, and intriguingly, they have overcome it in different ways. Chuck described how he has learned to bullshit a lot, because people remember him, and he doesn’t know them. Oliver, on the other hand, withdraws from people so as not to have to face, the sea of unrecognizable faces. And maybe that is when he does his quiet and thoughtful writing.

Prosopagnosia is at least part of the reason why Chuck Close paints such amazing portraits. He is obsessed with the face. He described a human face as more of a landscape, than a window to a person. He sees something we don’t, because we see something he doesn’t.

Oliver describes people in his stories in a way that captures their deeply personal, neurologically-unique, perspective. Maybe prosopagnosia makes him a more objective scientist? Perhaps he should be a cultural anthropologist, then he would never feel any non-scientific attachment to his individual subjects.

But, you have to wonder how personal relationships progress, or don’t, with this condition. It must be extremely difficult to make friends or meet acquaintances. And it must be surreal when the man at the coffee-cart knows your usual order. For the loved ones of those with “face-blindness”, I imagine it something like that scene from Its a Wonderful Life when Mary looks George square in the face, but doesn’t know him.

I am always interested in any supposed, or actual, intersection of science and art, but that is not really why I went to this lecture. I went because I am not face blind. I am the opposite. Oliver described a normal distribution of facial-recognition skills in the human population, with most people falling somewhere in the middle. I suspected that there was an opposite-Oliver end to this continuum. I was right. He went on to describe people who are extremely adept at facial-recognition. They gave a “test” to the audience. I scored a perfect 10, as did only a handful of other people in the auditorium audience. I am a “super recognizer”, or so they labeled it. I knew it.

If I see a picture of your mother from when she was young, in a crowd of other children, I can tell you which one she is. I once walked down to the subway platform and picked out the woman from the laundromats sister, I had never seen her before. Then, sure enough her sister walked over to join her, and it was the woman I knew. It gets weirder. I once recognized my friends boss, from the back, in a winter coat, on the train platform several feet away, I have met him once.

I don’t consider this a talent, its really more like the characteristic of a savant. And I am torn between using my power for good or for evil. Most times I use it for evil, or more like “no good”. I use it to avoid people. I always see them before they see me and I deftly duck down another avenue or behind a tree, without so much as a trace. Its great.

Recently, I decided that I should probably grow up and start using this trait for something productive. I could use it to walk up to people at professional conferences—who by the second day had removed their name tag—and introduce myself. Well, my interpersonal skills and courage aren’t nearly as honed as my skills of facial-recognition. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe next time. The faces I know will all be there again.

I wonder about populations of primates, like chimpanzees, which, because of their population history, have more total genetic diversity than all modern humans do. Do they also have more facial diversity? And to what degree do primates recognize the faces of con-specifics? And what might a population of extinct human ancestors look like, if they had more total facial diversity than we have today? Either males and females being more divergent, or just more facial variation overall. I suspect that this skill of understanding facial nuance would not necessarily be adaptive if faces were more wildly and obviously diverse than they are today.

It was tremendous to learn how Oliver Sacks and Chuck Close have struggled, and succeeded. And how this condition has fueled their impressive work. I thought the lecture spoke universally to overcoming any type of disadvantage and to spinning an inability into a keen and extraordinary awareness. I am thankful for their candor.

To those with prosopagnosia, faces are freed from the history that inhabits them, reduced to swerves of interesting flesh. And with that, virtually every human face provides an infinite resource of visual novelty. Certainly sometimes the possibility of who someone might be—without knowing the schlep that they really are—makes a face even more fabulous.


  1. Simply Fantastic! I too am a "super recognizer" and was at the talk. I also scored a 10 out of 10!!?? Which row were you in? I think I recognize you. I saw you in the lobby after the show. Weird. Maybe I will see you around the city.

  2. Dear Anonymous, I recognize you too and I find you adorable.

  3. Love this! I wish I could've attended the lecture, sounds very interesting.

  4. Crazy cool. I did not know that about Close, but I think I knew it about Sacks. Saw him give a talk at AMNH a couple of years ago. I know someone with this condition. Friend of a friend. Definitely a social challenge. I don't know if I'm a super recognizer...more like a very good one. Not sure if I could do the boss from the back thing. :-)

  5. found this cool face memory test online:

    i scored a 100%.

  6. And this is the actual test they gave during the lecture:

  7. this is the podcast of the actual lecture, from radiolab: