I know your name, it’s the face that’s a problem


National Post - Monday January 16th, 2012


On Boxing Day, an unlucky Toronto man, Oscar Bartholomew, died in police custody while visiting his native country of Grenada. Waiting for his wife to use the washroom in a police station, Bartholomew bear-hugged a female police officer he mistakenly believed to be an old friend. Officers on duty believed it was an assault, and seized Mr. Bartholomew, who later died in custody. Five officers have been charged with manslaughter.

I can only wonder if this tragically misunderstood gesture was linked to a genetically determined neurological deficit I can relate to: prosopagnosia.

The word prosopon in Greek means “face.” Prosopagnosia, I’ve learned, is to face-recognition what dyslexia is to word-recognition, afflicting about the same number of people: 5-10% of the population, including me. Prosopagnosics may fail to recognize even someone they have met yesterday, especially if the second meeting is unanticipated or de-contextualized.

Sadly, the brain’s vaunted plasticity cannot triumph over prosopagnosia, which relates to actual damage to a structure on the right occipitotemporal cortex. Happily, prosopagnosia does not interfere with the ability to read facial expression. I often don’t know who I’m talking to, but I have no difficulty reading my interlocutor’s annoyance that I didn’t recognize him.

I am always a bit anxious in gatherings where there is a mix of people I know well, some I’ve never met and many I may have met. At least I know solipsism isn’t the problem. I can’t count the number of times I have responded to an introduction with, “Nice to meet you,” only to see my introducee’s smile fade as she issues a frosty reminder that we have met several times already. At such mortifying moments, one can only babble something about “senior moments” (there are a few advantages to being old; this is one of them) or simply apologize profusely.

You know you have a problem with face recognition if you find yourself, like me, trying to memorize odd details about new acquaintances. I look for singularities like moles, skewed teeth or unusual eyebrows. I listen for unique accents, tonal qualities or diction tics. Or I fasten on an odd gait or gesture. Average-looking and average-acting people are a bane to me.

Like dyslexia, prosopagnosia runs a gamut from mild to extreme. My deficit is fairly mild: I have no problem with celebrities, for example (as I found when I took a quiz at faceblind.org), although lesser-known actors who resemble each other slightly can confuse me in a film. But my disability plagued me in my college teaching days when I had to get to know 30 new faces every semester. I only managed to recognize the unusually bright or funny or evil ones. (My present occupation, newspaper columnist, is mercifully face-recognition free.)

Those on the extreme end of prosopagnosia are truly to be pitied. Sometimes a stroke completely eliminates the ability to distinguish faces, including those of one’s most intimate circle. It’s too horrible to contemplate when you consider the ramifications.

The celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks, who explores the phenomenon in depth in his 2010 book, The Mind’s Eye, himself suffers from problems of facial recognition, and attributes his reputation for “shyness” and “social ineptitude” to his fairly severe prosopagnosia. He could recognize his immediate (but not his extended) family, and even put the wrong uncle’s photograph on the cover of his memoir, Uncle Tungsten. (Once, Sacks apologized to a burly, bearded gentleman he bumped into, only to realize it was himself in a mirror.)

It doesn’t help that I am married to a “super-recognizer” who has trouble with names, but never forgets a face. My husband once went up to a man at a mobbed social function and asked, “Weren’t you a busboy at Camp Pine Valley in 1953?” Yes, the bald, moustachioed, eyeglass-wearing guy said with awe. This galls me. My entire high school cohort could parade past me and I would be unlikely to identify a single one of them 50-something years on. And yet I am far more interested in people and their lives than my husband is.

Proposagnosia is usually only a social problem, but — as suggested by my (admittedly uninformed) speculation about the tragic case of Oscar Bartholomew — there are exceptions to that rule. Many an innocent person has been convicted on the basis of invalid eye witness testimony. Me, unless a criminal was seven feet tall, spoke Yiddish or had a dragon tattoo’d on his face, I would never volunteer to testify as an eyewitness to a crime, even if I’d been at the heart of the action. I don’t mean to teach prosecutors or defence lawyers their business: But MRIs and CT scans can identify prosopagnosia. Just saying.

National Post

bkay@videotron.ca