Thursday, 12 February 2015

Prosopagnosia - The Faceless Horror

Okay, so how has the slow death of my brain been progressing? Well, the latest development has answered more questions as well making life harder to deal with. And it has a name: Prosopagnosia. To help explain my current depressed state of being, I should first take a couple of jumps back in time.

As with much of my recently revealed neurology (being autistic, synesthetic, hyperthymic, etc.) this has been a part of my life since before I popped into this world. However, unlike the other neurodiversity features of my grey matter, this 'face blindness' was mild, and only really freaked me out when it worsened recently. This isn't to say that I wasn't impaired by the milder form, just that I had always had it, so had no frame of reference to suggest otherwise.

milohartnoll: Prosopagnosia. 80cm x 60cm. Oil on Canvas. 2012.
As I was growing, I was aware that I had a weird problem with my memory. Although I had continuous and faultless memory, I could never maintain people's faces in my memory. Nor could I associate names with people, nor would I recognise people 'out of context'. By this, I mean that if I bumped into someone whom I knew well, while shopping, I would not know who they were. I would have a strong feeling that I knew this person really well, but unless we were where we normally were together, I had no idea who it would be.

An example of this occurred back when I was 18. I had spent several months in hospital with a buggered up leg (a story about incompetence for another day) and had developed a relationship with my nurse who was about my age. A while later, after returning to school, I bumped into said nurse while with schoolmates at a busy bus station. She immediately made her way towards me, and behaved as one would expect. Now I knew I knew her, and had reciprocal feelings, but could not for the life of me recognise her. Now while prosopagnosia robs the sufferer of recognising faces, there are other hints... such as posture, voice, etc. So as soon as she spoke I knew who she was. Problem was, that because I hadn't recognised her and not knowing why, and not wanting to upset her, blurted out in a very loud voice "I didn't recognise you with your clothes on".

Suffice to say the whole station went silent, and my schoolmates wetting themselves laughing, and what I was trying to avoid was in fact made worse. She looked horrified at what I had just shared with the world, and that was the last time we saw each other. Of course, what I had meant was that she was in casual dress rather than in uniform... and thus out of context. Needless to say that no-one believed this.

So I came to learn pretty quickly my 'problem' if not the reason, and learned various coping strategies. These came in handy when I became a teacher, as there was no way I could remember any pupil. This did not mean that I did not know who was good where and how, or had done etc., but that I was unable to attach the experience to a face nor a name. This was a challenge. I resolved this by having the kids choose their seats... and then stick to them. I had a floor plan for each lesson taped to my desk, with name, picture and reference. I could associate the reference with our relationship, and therefore to the person sat in front of me. I like to think I managed to fool all the kids I taught... though I think I just came over as odd or eccentric, especially as I never used their names in corridors, playground, etc. Of course, I became a good friend to many, and so was able to remember them out of context, and still maintain contact with them.

So as with my other as-yet-unidentified neurology, I had adapted. But this was before this particular feature progressed (at the time only for a few weeks). It totally freaked me out. Suddenly every face on TV, film, DVD, etc. was replaced. It was almost as if everyone had over-photoshopped their faces so now looked like CGI versions of themselves. Naturally I thought it was my TV playing up (like the original plasma TVs with ghosting) but on getting a new one had the same issue. I concluded that as everyone had changed, they must all be using a new foundation to hide wrinkles and lines for vanity on HD. And that this cream was being used on everyone...woman, man, and child. Which meant it must be a new common ingredient to all make-ups. It made no sense, but there was no alternative.

To my huge relief, it passed as quickly as it arrived, and I assumed either the new ingredient had been removed, or changed (unlikely), or that I had gotten used to it. That was until a few months ago.

Turning on my TV in my new place (after my divorce last year) and getting back to what I had started to watch the previous night, I suddenly realised that the 'over-shopped' face plague had returned with a vengeance. But what was weird was that none of the actors had been using this 'magic' foundation the previous night. So hitting rewind, I soon came to realise that it wasn't the TV, nor the broadcast, nor the make-up... but that it was something to do with me. Now this really freaked me out.

The Face of Another, 1966, Hiroshi Teshigahara

And not just the TV... my friends, family, neighbours and strangers. It was like I had been transported to an alternate reality where everyone was an auton and I the only human. Suddenly everyone's eyes were lifeless. What were once windows to the soul were now just shapes. I cannot begin to explain how this changed my day-to-day living. Imagine walking out one morning, and everyone now had a generic face, such as in The Face of Another (or if you watch Doctor Who, the episode: The End of Time, where the Master takes over everyone's body and everyone on earth has his face on their bodies). Now imagine looking into a mirror and seeing a stranger's non-face. Now imagine that no face ever returns.

So here I am, unable to watch TV or film, as I can't tell the difference between the characters/actors, unless it is a 2-hander, or Star-trek where everyone of importance is colour coded. And constantly freaked out every time someone turns or tilts their head, as their face flows into a contorted mass of independently moving face parts... eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc. It really is very unsettling, and I can never get used to it.

It is hard for people to comprehend, so the best way I can describe it is to use that old racist phrase: "they all look the same to me", except in my case, it isn't an ethnic slur, but an entire race reality. What some people find easier to grasp is the related problem where people recognise the face, but can't match it to the face they see. This is probably more accessible as it is the staple of many a classic Sci-fi movie, such as 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or others, where the aliens look exactly the same as the people they have replaced, but their children just 'know' they are not the same person. This real-life condition has the same problem in the brain, except it is the first rather than second neural pathway which is damaged.

  • http://sadisticscribbler.tumblr.com/post/110797145142/neuroanatomyblog-prosopagnosia-face
  • http://sadisticscribbler.tumblr.com/post/110797221397/victoriousvocabulary-prosopagnosia-noun

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