30 May 2011

Unable to recognise a face?

I was with a friend the other day and she looked at me for a long time before saying my name. I casually asked if all was OK and she told me she suffers from face-blindness – which I never knew about, even though I have known her for 10 years. She took her cue to realise it was me, when she remembered the dress I was wearing.

The condition is called prosopagnosia which can be inherited or caused by a brain injury. For my friend, its symptoms occurred quite suddenly as an adult and she had had no injury as a catalyst – she described it as being very frightening and only achieved some sense of relief with the diagnosis. It is more than not being able to put a name to a face, which is something a lot of people experience. It is caused by an impairment in the right hemisphere of the brain that specifically identifies faces. She can make out facial features fine – and is actually a wonderful portrait artist – but she doesn’t connect it with that person in her brain.

Dr Joseph DeGutis, a neuroscientist at Harvard University is currently using a training programme to help sufferers which encourages them to look at the whole face as typically they seem to look at only one facial feature at one time.

For my friend, having prosopagnosia has increased her sensory acuity in other senses. She says she is far more conscious of smell – the perfumes people wear, if they are big coffee drinkers for instance. And I was glad to offer her the genuine feedback that she comes across always as being a wonderful listener – which she would be irrespective of the prosopagnosia – as she is very aware of different people’s voices, the pitch, tone and different subtleties in the spoken word.

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