Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mind Hacks: When faces fade

This post originated from www.MindHacks.com. 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.

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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?
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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.

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