Medical Microfiction: Prosopagnosia

Brain Damage You Can Believe In

It’d been over a year since my racist grandma made one of her trademark comments about “those people” bringing down the neighborhood. Indeed, all our family get-togethers had seemed unusually civil lately. Great-Uncle Ernie hadn’t cracked a sammich joke in ages, and my horrible Aunt Louise actually complimented a rabbi yesterday.

Concerned, we took Grandma in for a full workup.

“I’ve been seeing lots of similar cases,” said the neurologist. “They can’t tell a stranger’s face from their own anymore. Damage to the fusiform gyrus in the brain. Turns out radiation from cell phone use isn’t so harmless after all.”

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Perception: Prosopagnosia
Do you see one face, or many faces? (Photo credit: sbpoet)

Remember pareidolia, the human tendency to see faces in pretty much anything? Today’s word, prosopagnosia, is what happens when the portion of the brain responsible for pareidolia goes bad. Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is the inability to tell one face from another, usually because of damage to the ventral fusiform gyrus. A person with this condition will not be able to tell one face from another. Your racist grandma won’t be able to tell “her people” apart from the “wrong sort”. She won’t even be able to recognize herself if she looks in the mirror! Prosopagnosiacs rely on clothing, voices, and other cues in order to recognize friends, family, and acquaintances.

I started composing this story several weeks ago, and in that time I’ve seen this rather obscure medical word pop up everywhere. First, Brad Pitt decides he’s got face blindness. It may very well be the case, but call me skeptical. Prosopagnosia is more than just being bad with faces and names. Honestly, I’m bad with faces and names. Terrible, in fact. I’ve been known to answer the door and cheerfully introduce myself to old friends I haven’t seen in years. But I can still recognize my own face in the mirror. I can tell my husband apart from my brother. People with true prosopagnosia can’t do that. I would want to ask Brad if he routinely mistakes his wife for other women, or has trouble telling his own face apart from his coworkers’ faces in promotional shots of his movies.

Otherwise, he’s just bad with faces. No shame in that, but it’s not face blindness.

A shaken Clark Kent, unconcerned about his sec...
Either everyone in Metropolis has prosopagnosia, or they’re a bunch of morons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In other prosopagnosia-related news, I found this hilarious article speculating whether Superman induces face blindness in the people around him, which would explain why no one seems to see through his terrible Clark Kent disguise.

Finally, living at the intersection of face blindness and microfiction, the award-winning sci-fi author Ken Liu wrote his own 100-word story for the Drabblecast this week entitled “Prosopagnosia”. Go listen to the episode! The story’s unbelievably good, especially for its length, and best of all, it’s medically accurate! With the Brad Pitts of the world muddying up the definitions for the public, I always appreciate it when writers give a little TLC to scientific precision.

As an added bonus, listen for my 100-character story at the end of the episode. It’s under my forum name, Varda, but we’re the same person. Really.

Brad Pitt, if you’re reading this, I’m not the same person as Clark Kent. Sorry for the confusion.

Are you good or terrible with names and faces? Do you know someone or do you personally experience medical prosopagnosia? What’s it like?

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8 thoughts on “Medical Microfiction: Prosopagnosia

    1. Yup! I do wonder if they’ve done any studies on whether prosopagnosia would help cure bigotry. Of course, the tradeoffs would be a big problem. If Brad Pitt confuses me with Angelina Jolie, that would be bad. Actually, maybe it would be GOOD! :-p

  1. There are different degrees in which people experience prosopagnosia. It is now thought 2-2.5% or the population may have it at some level.

    I love the Superman story. I acquired prosopagnosia in 2003 due to an accident. Like anything else, you learn to cope. It does cause discomfort at times. Yet, it has allowed me the opportunity to let everyone make a million first impressions when meeting them! 🙂

    1. Hmm, this is good information! I love it when someone with personal experience chimes in. I love your positive and gracious approach to prosopagnosia – what a kind thing, to give people many turns at receiving a warm welcome! 😀

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