January 4th, 2011
09:47 AM ET
In the Human Factor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to survivors who have overcome tremendous odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. Be inspired by their successes, as we have been. Today, renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks explains how he has coped with the rare but real disorder known as face blindness.
I have had difficulty recognizing faces for as long as I can remember. My inability to recognize schoolmates would cause embarrassment and sometimes offense— it did not occur to them (or to me, for that matter) that I had a perceptual problem. I recognized close friends without much problem, but this was partly because I identified particular features: Eric had heavy eyebrows and thick spectacles, and Jonathan was tall and gangly, with a mop of red hair.
I had no trouble recognizing my parents or my brothers, though I was less adept with my huge extended family and completely lost trying to identify them in family photos.
But I still sometimes fail to recognize my assistant, who has worked with me for 27 years. I have what neurologists call prosopagnosia—an inability to recognize individual faces as most people can.
I sometimes don’t even recognize myself. Thus I have often apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man is myself in a mirror. One day, sitting at a sidewalk café table, I turned to the restaurant window and began grooming my beard, as I sometimes do. I then realized that what I had taken to be my reflection was not grooming himself but looking at me oddly. There was a gray-bearded man on the other side of the window, who must have been wondering why I was preening myself in front of him.
Although such examples may seem comical, they can be quite devastating. People with very severe prosopagnosia may be unable to recognize their spouse, or to pick out their own child in a group of others. Anne F., a correspondent of mine with a lifelong prosopagnosia, notes that her father and sister both have the same condition: Her father, she writes, “was unable to recognize his wife in a recent photograph [and] at a wedding reception he asked a stranger to identify the man sitting next to his daughter”–her husband of five years at the time.
We prosopagnosics need to be resourceful and inventive, to find ways of circumventing our deficits. We may become expert at recognizing people by an unusual nose or beard, spectacles, or a certain sort of clothing. Sometimes we recognize people by voice, posture, or gait; and, of course, context and expectation are paramount—one expects to see one’s students at school, one’s colleagues at the office, and so on. Such strategies, both conscious and unconscious, become automatic.
Nonetheless, I tend to avoid conferences, parties, and large gatherings as much as I can, knowing that they will lead to anxiety and embarrassing situations—not only failing to recognize people I know well, but greeting strangers as old friends.
Face-blindness affects a small but significant minority of the population—2 to 3%, perhaps 6 or 8 million in the U.S. alone. And at the other end of the spectrum, there are another 2 or 3 percent, super-recognizers who may instantly recognize the face of a waitress or bus driver seen only briefly years before.
Harvard psychologist Ken Nakayama and other researchers have been working on finding the neurological basis for this wide range of abilities to recognize faces, as well as the social consequences of face-blindness (more information on their work is available at www.prosopagnosia.org). For myself, I find it a relief to go public with my prosopagnosia—and know that I am not the only one.
Human Factor appears on "SGMD," 7:30 a.m. Saturday-Sunday
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.