“I have difficulty remembering names, but I always remember a face.” This is a common expression. Most of us have difficulty remembering names (see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Remembering Names” for tips on how to remember names), but little difficulty remembering faces. Prospagnosia refers to the inability or difficulty in remembering faces. I was surprised to learn when I read the article “Face-Blind” in the New Yorker1 that two to two and a half percent of the US population, that’s six to eight million people, suffer from prospagnosia. What is especially interesting is that the author, Oliver Sachs, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University and a highly successful author, suffers from prospagnosia. He also suffers from topographical agnosia, which is a difficulty in identifying landmarks that can make navigation extremely difficult. The article relates humorous anecdotes regarding experiences these shortcomings have led to.
I was further surprised to learn that it was not until 1947 that this difficulty in recognizing faces was recognized clinically and given the name prospagnosia. I wonder why if so many people suffer from the problem, then why are most of us unaware of it. Given its prevalence in the population, we must all have encountered a reasonable number of people with this condition and remained unaware of this fact.
Perhaps one reason is that propagnosiacs try to high their condition. I have been reading Oliver Sachs for years and remained unaware of his condition. Jane Goodall, who gained fame from her extensive studies of chimpanzees in the wild, suffered from a degree of prospagnosia. She was often unable to distinguish individual chimps by their faces, particularly when they had common faces. The accomplishments of these people are even more amazing when you consider that they had to cope with prospagnosia.
The artist Chuck Close has severe prospagnosia. He copes with this by doing gigantic portraits of faces. This process enables him to commit these images to memory. This coping mechanism has led to artistic success. Close is famous for his gigantic portraits of faces.
Close’s coping mechanism is rather unique. More common coping strategies include recognizing people by an unusual nose or bear, or by their spectacles or a special type of clothing. Voice, posture, and gait are other feature used for recognition. They also take advantage of context and expectation. That is, they expect to encounter people in certain situations, or certain people are usually met in a particular context. Presumably transactive memory aids could be used, for example, notes on a Blackberry or pictures on a cell phone.
To date, no instances of neuroplasticity have been noted. Perhaps it is just a matter of time before something along the lines of what was reported in the Healthymemory Blog post, “A Most Remarkable Example of Neuroplasticity.”
1August 30, 2010, 36-43.
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