Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mind Hacks: When faces fade

This post originated from Specific post link in title.

A March 2005 article in New Scientist reports on a study on a type of inherited prosopagnosia, suggesting a genetic basis for face recognition.

The research was an international effort, led by husband and wife team, geneticists Thomas and Martina Grüter. Notably, Thomas has a particular interest in this area, as he has prosopagnosia himself.

Mind Hacks spoke to two members of the research team about this intriguing study: Thomas on his own experience of prosopagnosia and the genetics of face recognition, and neuropsychologist Hadyn Ellis on the implications for the developing field of 'cognitive genetics'. Follow the title links for the entire interviews.

* * *

Thomas and Martina are part of a team of geneticists from the Institute of Human Genetics in Münster, Germany. They became interested in how Thomas' condition seemed to run in families and decided to study it in more detail. They recruited neuropsychologists from Cardiff University, initiating an international effort to examine the genetic basis of face perception.

The main finding of the study was that prosopagnosia seemed to be inherited in an autosomal dominant fashion, meaning only a single gene from one parent is needed to cause the condition.

Could it really be the case that the development of face recognition relies on a single gene ? We tackled Thomas on this controversial interpretation, but first we wanted to know, what it is like having prosopagnosia?
* * *

How did you first realise you were unable to recognise faces as well as other people?

When I didn't recognize my teachers in the street. Some didn't care, but others were not amused. Most of the time, I wasn't even aware that I had overlooked them, if so, they didn't say a word.

What is it like having prosopagnosia ? For example, do faces seem strange or distorted to you?

Faces look perfectly normal, they just fade in my memory very quickly. I can recognize emotions as well as other people, maybe better.

To most people, not being able to recognise faces would seem a great disability. Why do you think most people with hereditary prosopagnosia are not significantly impaired by their condition ?

They have had all of their life to cope with the problem. They have learned to recognize people by other features like gait [walking style] or voice. And, of course, like colorblind people, they cannot imagine how it feels to remember faces normally.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Face blindness is a common hereditary disorder

This article on recent research into the hereditary type of prosopagnosia (HPA), which came out last summer. There are some statements I noted in bold type.

Face blindness is a common hereditary disorder: "Face blindness is a common hereditary disorder

"In the first study to examine whether the inability to recognize faces can be inherited, researchers found that it is in fact a common disorder that runs in families and is one of the most frequent disorders apparently controlled by a defect in a single gene. The study was published online June 30, 2006 in American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A, and is available via Wiley InterScience.

Prosopagnosia (PA) or face blindness is characterized by the inability to differentiate faces, except for the most familiar ones such as members of one's family. It can be caused by brain injury, but cases where the disorder appears to run in families have also been reported. In the first systematic study of hereditary prosopagnosia (HPA), researchers led by Ingo Kennerknecht, M.D. of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Muenster in Germany, recruited 689 subjects from local secondary schools and a medical school and administered a questionnaire to identify those with suspected HPA. They found 17 cases of the disorder, and of the 14 subjects who consented to further interfamilial testing, all of them had at least one first degree relative who also had it."

"Nearly all affected persons report a problem in deciding immediately whether a face is known," the authors state. Subjects report uncertainty in social situations and the inability to visualize the faces of close relatives or recall mental images of trees, leaves, or birds. They generally have difficulty following TV programs or movies because they cannot tell similar actors apart. All of the PA subjects revealed that they used up to three different strategies for overcoming the disorder. In the compensation strategy, subjects attempt to recognize people by other characteristics such as voice, gait, clothing or hair color. In the explanation strategy, subjects have a ready set of excuses as to why they can't recognize someone, such as being deep in thought or needing new glasses. In the avoidance strategy, subjects try to avoid situations where they might be unable to recognize faces, such as large functions or crowded places.

Inability to recall images of trees, leaves, or birds? Hmmm, I've never heard that before. I would say I'm not affected in this way, but then its not something I have ever focused on. I've heard many prosopagnosics (PA's) have trouble recognizing cars, but I've tested on this and seem to do ok.

The summary hits the nail on the head regarding the 3 coping strategies. One of the reasons I finally decided to "come out" about PA (albeit slowly) was that I noticed I was lying ALL the time, trying to cover up for my lapses, and make sure people did not feel that I took them lightly. My most frequent excuse was probably "I didn't recognize you because I was in my own little world.", implying I was daydreaming, and, of course, I never do that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007 The Echo Maker: A Novel: Books: Richard Powers

This is one of the few novels I have heard about that talks about prosopagnosia. The main character learns about the condition in the process of being diagnosed after a head injury. The Echo Maker: A Novel: Books: Richard Powers:

"Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A truck jackknifes off an 'arrow straight country road' near Kearney, Nebr., in Powers's ninth novel, becoming the catalyst for a painstakingly rendered minuet of self-reckoning. The accident puts the truck's 27-year-old driver, Mark Schluter, into a 14-day coma. When he emerges, he is stricken with Capgras syndrome: he's unable to match his visual and intellectual identifications with his emotional ones. He thinks his sister, Karin, isn't actually his sister—she's an imposter (the same goes for Mark's house). A shattered and worried Karin turns to Gerald Weber, an Oliver Sacks–like figure who writes bestsellers about neurological cases, but Gerald's inability to help Mark, and bad reviews of his latest book, cause him to wonder if he has become a 'neurological opportunist.' Then there are the mysteries of Mark's nurse's aide, Barbara Gillespie, who is secretive about her past and seems to be much more intelligent than she's willing to let on, and the meaning of a cryptic note left on Mark's nightstand the night he was hospitalized. MacArthur fellow Powers (Gold Bug Variations, etc.) masterfully charts the shifting dynamics of Karin's and Mark's relationship, and his prose—powerful,"

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

prosopagnosia - Definitions from

American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary - Cite This Source

pros·o·pag·no·sia (prs-pg-nzh, -z-)

An inability or difficulty in recognizing familiar faces; it may be congenital or result from injury or disease of the brain.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary - Cite This Source

Main Entry: pros·op·ag·no·sia
Pronunciation: "präs-&p-ag-'nO-zh&
Function: noun
: a form of visual agnosia characterized by an inability to recognize faces

Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary, © 2002 Merriam-Webster, Inc.
On-line Medical Dictionary - Cite This Source


prosopagnosia: in CancerWEB's On-line Medical Dictionary

On-line Medical Dictionary, © 1997-98 Academic Medical Publishing & CancerWEB

Monday, April 16, 2007

3 lbs - Available on iTunes

I just found out you can also buy the 3lbs episode on iTunes for 1.99. It's the one called 'Heart Stopping'.

Here's a URL for it on the the iTunes Music Store

There are four episodes up, even though only three aired.

3 lbs is on BBC1

3 lbs: CBS's cancelled Neurology Drama

I loved this show because there was some fun neuroscience stuff going on in the background as the personal drama of the characters played out. I was truly excited to see the third episode include a story line about Prosopagnosia. Unfortunately, that was the last episode we here in the U.S. were able to see, as the show was cancelled.

I just got a tip that the show is now airing in the UK. The face blind episode has already aired. It's on Sundays, BBC1, at 10.45pm. You might be able to find the episode repeated at some other time. I don't know how many episodes they will continue with in the UK, but if you like brain science, its a great show.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Comic Book Illustration

What I see when I look at you.

What I see in my mind when I look away. Hopefully your clothes, hair, or build are unique enough that I will remember you from them.
Posted by Picasa

Friday, April 13, 2007

Faceblind Stuff: Items for Prosopagnosics :

Faceblind Stuff: Items for Prosopagnosics :

"Always forget a face? Warn new acquaintances with this tee!"

Yeah! A t-shirt just for us prosopagnosics. Check out the link to all the different variations available. Very cool stuff. Here is the one I ordered:

Thursday, April 12, 2007

New Scientist Short Sharp Science blog: Strange faces

New Scientist Short Sharp Science blog: Strange faces

An entry on prosopagnosia on the New Scientist blog, the blogger himself/herself discovering they have it.

This quote is in reference to taking the Celebrity Faces test:

I tried the test and scored a rokkin’ 62%. The average is 85%, but considering how bad I am at recognising faces, I was pretty proud of myself. The ones I found easiest were the icons like Ghandi and Monroe. I had no idea who it was when presented with Jennifer Aniston or the Hoff. Perhaps mild prosopagnosics could provide a handy service by giving stars and politicians a celebrity rating – “You’re not coming in unless the prosopagnosic recognises you…”

I love this idea - prosopagnosics as the gaugers of fame.

Useless Facts

Useless Facts - "Prosopagnosia refers to the inability to identify people by their faces. In severe cased (sic) prosopagnosia a person may not be able to identify themselves in a mirror."

I found this web site and quote while searching for information on prosopagnosia.

Ironic how one person's Useless Fact could be another person's life story.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Faceless Gym Member

At the gym last night, I headed for my favorite piece of cardio equipment, the Cybex Arc Trainer. There are only two of the model I like, and one was empty. As I got closer to it, I realized there was a sign on it that said "temporarily out of service", so it wasn't available after all. The women working out on the one right next to the broken one offered hers to me as soon as she finished, which would be in 7 minutes. I thankfully accepted and moved over a few feet to the next cardio machine and began to stretch.

I faced away from her so she would not feel like I was anxiously looking over her shoulder, and took out a magazine to page through as I waited. A few minutes later, a woman walked up, stood right in front of me and smiled politely, like she wanted to get on the machine I was using as a stretching post. I asked if she wanted to use it, and with a puzzled look on her face she said "No, I finished with the Arc Trainer, you can use it now."

These are the times when I feel stupid, or more correctly, feel I appear stupid. If the woman knew about my prosopagnosia, she would have immediately understood why I didn't recognize her but, of course, I would never try to explain it during such a brief encounter. And the truth is, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't recognize her.

Even after all these years (I've been faceblind since high school) it still surprises me how bad I am at recognizing faces. Its almost like I wake up every day expecting to be able to recognize people facially just like everyone else. Apparently I'm blindly optimistic.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Wired Magazine Cover Personality

Wired Magazine: "Special Feature: Get Naked and Rule the World

Get Naked and ...

Smart companies are sharing secrets with rivals, blogging about products in their pipeline, even admitting to their failures. The name of this new game is RADICAL TRANSPARENCY, and it's sweeping boardrooms across the nation. Even those Office drones at Dunder Mifflin get it. So strip down and learn how to have it all by baring it all."

I have seen this magazine cover on newsstands, and I watch "The Office" religiously, and yet, I had no idea this cover personality was the woman who plays Pam, the receptionist on The Office until Andrea mentioned it in the comments section of a previous post.

When I went to the WIRED website to grab an image of the current cover, I found the two shots of the same pose, one where Jenna Fischer is clothed, and one (even LESS recognizable, since I use clothing to help identify people) with her sans clothing behind the same generously sized sign. Totally different facial expression on her than you see on The Office + out of context = non-recognition.

Face Blind Humor

Written by a fellow prosopagnosic:

I might not know you when we meet,
I might not know you on the street,
Not in a store,
Not at my door,
I might not know you here or there,
I might not know you anywhere.

--by Deb "Seuss"

And that about sums it up!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Culture Is Key To Interpreting Facial Emotions

"Culture Is Key To Interpreting Facial Emotions"

Science Daily — Research has uncovered that
culture is a determining factor when interpreting
facial emotions. The study reveals that in
cultures where emotional control is the standard,
such as Japan, focus is placed on the eyes to
interpret emotions. Whereas in cultures where
emotion is openly expressed, such as the United
States, the focus is on the mouth to interpret

Across two studies, using computerized icons and
human images, the researchers compared how
Japanese and American cultures interpreted
images, which conveyed a range of emotions.

'These findings go against the popular theory
that the facial expressions of basic emotions can
be universally recognized,' said University of
Alberta researcher Dr. Takahiko Masuda. 'A
person's culture plays a very strong role in
determining how they will perceive emotions and
needs to be considered when interpreting facial

These cultural differences are even noticeable in
computer emoticons, which are used to convey a
writer's emotions over email and text messaging.
Consistent with the research findings, the
Japanese emoticons for happiness and sadness vary
in terms of how the eyes are depicted, while
American emoticons vary with the direction of the
mouth. In the United States the emoticons : ) and
: - ) denote a happy face, whereas the emoticons
:( or : - ( denote a sad face. However, Japanese
tend to use the symbol (^_^) to indicate a happy
face, and (;_;) to indicate a sad face.

When participants were asked to rate the
perceived levels of happiness or sadness
expressed through the different computer
emoticons, the researchers found that the
Japanese still looked to the eyes of the
emoticons to determine its emotion.

"We think it is quite interesting and appropriate
that a culture that tends to masks its emotions,
such as Japan, would focus on a person's eyes
when determining emotion, as eyes tend to be
quite subtle," said Masuda. "In the United
States, where overt emotion is quite common, it
makes sense to focus on the mouth, which is the
most expressive feature on a person's face."

These findings are published in the current issue
of The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
and are a result from a collaborative study
between Masaki Yuki (Hokkaido University),
William Maddux (INSEAD) and Takahiko Masuda
(University of Alberta). The results also suggest
the interesting possibility that the Japanese may
be better than Americans at detecting "false
smiles". If the position of the eyes is the key
to whether someone's smile is false or true,
Japanese may be particularly good at detecting
whether someone is lying or being "fake".
However, these questions can only be answered
with future research.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news
release issued by University of Alberta.
Copyright © 1995-2007 ScienceDaily LLC — All
rights reserved —

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

To Test or Not to Test?

One of the decisions you may need to make as a Prosopagnosic (PA) is whether to get tested or not. Its something I decided to do awhile back, while visiting London (see previous posts). I also arranged to meet Matt, another PA from my FaceBlind group list, while I was there in London. We talked a lot about whether it was beneficial to get tested.

Once you do get tested there is the burning desire to make sense of whatever you've just learned about yourself, and it is often easiest to do this by comparing notes with someone else who has taken the tests, or at least, understands the condition. All these new thoughts come tumbling out of your mind, as you try to reconcile and reorder your own image.

I met Matt (see photo) just after I got tested, and wished he had already been, so I could talk to him about specifics of the different tests. There is an implied "code of silence" about the PA tests, so as not to bias the results of future test takers. Matt took the tests a week or so after I did, and had a similar reaction to the results.

What follows in a short set of text messages between Matt and I about his initial reaction to getting tested. I thought it was something other PA's might appreciate. Thanks to Matt for his permission to share these thoughts:

Matt: "I am possibly one of the worst people Dr. Brad has ever met. I found that exhausting. And funny - I laughed through most of it, esp putting the faces in order:)"

Me: "Yes! That was the tough one. Congrats, you're mad;)"

Matt: "Hooray for madness, then. I'm in a pub having a soothing beer on my own, but I'm bursting to tell people that my stupidity has a name now. Perhaps I won't tho."

Me: "Wish I was there to have a pint with you. Tell them all! Cheers!"

Matt: "You're right tho - the people who need to know are the strangers who wouldn't understand. Those I feel I can tell are the friends I can ID anyway. Eeek."

So in the end, you have an official diagnosis, and it is somewhat of a relief, but then who do you tell?