Saturday, July 2, 2011
Case history of a prosopagnostic
One happy day I discovered I had prosopagnosia, a glitch in my brain. I'd been bluffing my entire life despite having trouble recognising faces. It's easy: you say 'Hi Rachel,' and I say 'Oh, hi!'
Nevertheless it was a relief. Oh, so I'm not imagining it. Oh, so there's a reason, there's even a label. Maybe it's not a moral flaw to forget people's faces. Maybe I should just give up the struggle.
Think you might have this abnormality of the brain? Here's my experience of prosopagnosia. (What a cool word! I love it!)
Aged 12, first year of high school. A literary little girl, I was fascinated by novels. How did writers write? An inspiring English teacher instructed us to look at plot, style, theme and ... character. Time and time again I stared at myself in the mirror, wondering how a writer could possibly describe my face. Ordinary eyes, forehead, nose, mouth—what could they possibly say? Rachel has a face? As a budding writer, I was mystified. A face is a face is a potato.
Going to the movies. In the early days I recognised Doris Day by her hair and voice, and of course by the name on the poster. I easily recognised Brigitte Bardot from her uniquely big luscious lips (pre-Botox), roughly the same shape as her breasts, and Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn by their hairstyles. So I wasn't doing too badly at first. But soon the pool became too crowded, and now every actor has fifty look-alikes. So today, though I adore the movies, never ask me who the stars are. They all look the same—except for Meryl Streep.
Who is that young man? Surely not —? A nice young man crossed the road, stood 6 inches in front of me, looked me in the eye and said very deliberately, 'Hello, Mum.' Yep, that was my son. He'd had a hair cut.
Who is that strange looking man in my house? A friend of my husband? No, Rachel, that is your husband. He shaved off his beard.
Who is that person in the mirror? It's me, of course. Everyone knows that. Out of context (the mirror) I think I might recognise my forehead and smile. Might not.
To my delight, I find my reflection a more familiar sight since I lost some weight. The jaw now meets the neck in a shape I seem to remember from an earlier era.
Oops, what about that scar on your nose? Minor surgery for skin cancer last week freaked me out, which made no sense for a minor operation. It's funny to think I care so much about spoiling my face, when after all, I see it as a potato. An attractive potato, even a gourmet Jersey Benne potato—but still, a potato.
With age, there's a marvellous bonus for prosopagnostics: I'm no worse at this gig than I was at the age of 12, but my friends say they're getting worse. They think it's is a normal sign of aging.
Prosopagnosia is a funny little ailment that has done me no harm. It's kept me on my toes. And it seems self-indulgent to even mention it, except that all this new brain research is fascinating.
Image: TestMyBrain.org Harvard University: my famous face recognition test result