Seeing through face blindness
A few weeks ago I wrote about my experiences with face blindness and my inability to picture things mentally. I confess I was more than a little nervous writing the piece, but the response has been amazing. I’ve heard from people who’ve had similar experiences and fascinating insights. I’ve also been asked some interesting questions, some of which I’ll try to answer below.
Aphantasia in science and fiction
Literally “without the capacity to form images”, aphantasia is the proposed medical name for my experience (being without a “mind’s eye”). By curious coincidence, it only entered the scientific lexicon for the first time this year, when a professor from Exeter University published an early study into the condition. That’s not to say that aphantasia is something new; the phenomenon was noted in the 19th century, and may well have been known before then. What it does say, I think, is just how difficult it is to perceive.
A recurring comment from readers has been “I can’t imagine what that’s like”. This is wonderfully apt. Despite reading plenty of descriptions of what most people can do, I may never experience it myself. From the other side of the room, the reverse is true. With the ability to picture things or build scenes in your head, our thought processes may be so different as to seem incomprehensible.
Given this fundamental difference, it’s easy to see how aphantasia could be mistaken for something else: lower intelligence; difficulty communicating; or even just having a dull mind. Only in the last century did we gain the tools needed to see aphantasia in action: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI (yes, the big polo-tube machine which makes the thudding noises on House). Using an MRI doctors have been able to see the reduced “activation” of relevant brain areas in a patient with face blindness or aphantasia.
I’m known for being a voracious reader, and I try to read a book a week (in fiction, sci-fi is my favourite genre, particularly Arthur C Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson). This is one of the areas where aphantasia puts you at an annoying disadvantage. As I explained before, when I read a description of a scene I build something like a node map in my head, connecting all the known facts. This is not a visual thing though – I can’t see the whole map at once, or pan and zoom around it. Then, as you do when creating an image, I fill in the blanks and add extra detail using my memories, synonyms, and whatever else comes to mind. The process is both unconscious and instantaneous, but it is limited to the number of facts I can hold in my mind at once1.
So, to cut a long story short, I now understand that my experience when reading fiction is lacklustre, and I’m probably missing out.
Further down the rabbit hole
If you’re still reading, I’ll assume you’re either beginning to grasp the difference, or you’re at least trying. Time then, to break out the cognitive spanner, and jam it firmly in the works. There are a few ways in which I can mentally picture imagery, to some degree.
The first is still images, including photos. I can form a vague visual outline of photos I’m particularly familiar with. For example, on a trip to Costa Rica about 9 years ago, one of the photos I took was of an extraordinarily tall, solitary tree, in a green valley surrounded by bright blue sky. I can recall the composition of the photo, and roughly picture it, with the right colours. To get a sense of this, take a look at a standard sized photo, and make sure you’ve got the image clear in your mind. Now blur it a little, as if it were poorly focused, and take 20 paces back. You know it’s the same image, but the details are unclear.
If I’ve seen a photo a few times, I can recognise it without needing to deconstruct it into facts. The more interesting part though, is that I can recognise faces in pictures without needing to analyse them. I get thrown by age, hair colour changes, and sunglasses, but that may not be uncommon. The key thing is, if I’ve met somebody a few times, in a variety of contexts, I can probably point at them in a photo. However, if I saw that same person on the street, I wouldn’t necessarily recognise them at all. I can also recognise famous faces in pictures, and I don’t have trouble differentiating the characters in TV shows or films.
This is bizarre. It suggests that somewhere in my memory, I do store visual images of faces, and I can compare images I’m seeing with my memory. Why can I do this in some contexts and not others? I think the reasons I find it difficult to recognise faces in person may include movement (people rarely stand still with an unchanging expression so I can work out who they are); distractions (it’s unusual to encounter people against solid, stationary backgrounds); and lack of context. Films and TV may be easier because they include context – story, music, spoken dialogue, and a limited universe.
The other time when I can visualise mental imagery is far less useful, but infinitely more enjoyable. It’s also a lot harder to be certain whether I really am visualising images, or just convincing myself I am.
For those who have never experienced one, a lucid dream is one in which you know you’re dreaming, and so may even be able to dictate the direction of the dream. You can relive memories, interact with people, visit places you’ve never been or do the impossible. All this you experience in a regular dream, but the added awareness and degree of control over a lucid dream transforms it into a mental playground. As skeptics point out, they may not even exist – it may be just a brief period of wakefulness, intermingled with drowsy imagination.
I am quite susceptible to lucid dreams, and can almost always control them. If I make an effort to think about the dream immediately after I wake up, I can recall the people I met, and they seem to have clear, vivid, faces.
Imagining the future
This illustrates how complicated the mind is. It isn’t a binary situation, where you can recognise faces or you can’t. Even those who “can’t”, potentially “can” in some cases. Even simple thought processes don’t go from start to finish in a predefined, linear sequence – the brain appears to have multiple systems for doing the same thing in different ways. Take for example how you can conjure up the same memory by thinking about how it looked, felt, sounded, smelt or perhaps even tasted at the time. Maybe my problems with faces and images only affect some of the systems involved in the process, which may explain the incongruities.
Recently I’ve been reading about neuroplasticity. This describes the brain’s ability to change and adapt over the course of our lifetime. It challenges the traditional school of thought: that after the explosive mental development we experience as children, our brains are hard-wired and basically unchangeable for the rest of our lives. Neuroplasticity and the brilliant techniques based on it also offer the potential for change; that one day it may be possible to train oneself out of conditions like face blindness and aphantasia.
- I don’t mean 4, or 7, or any of the other very small numbers you’ll often see quoted for this. There’s an important distinction: those estimates usually refer to the number of disparate facts a person can hold in their mind at once. In my case, the facts I’m trying to keep in mind are related, and are all part of the same narrative. While I have no idea what the true number here is (or if there is one), I suspect it’s somewhat higher than 4.