A Life Without Faces
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a forest clearing, surrounded by towering trees. A patch of brilliant blue sky is visible through the leafy boughs above; the floor is a carpet of golden leaves. You can hear birdsong and the faint gurgle of a stream in the distance. The air is crisp and clean, and you feel a gentle chill on your skin.
When most people hear that, they can actually “see” an image, and some will even picture a rich scene. I can’t. However focused I am, however hard I try, my inner canvas is blank. Until recently, I assumed this was normal, that nobody else could either. This changed when I read The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young. A fascinating, heart-warming book, one sentence in particular struck me:
“Janice has found that people have difficulty believing her when she says that all she sees when she closes her eyes and tries to conjure up an image is total blackness”
There it was in black and white: a sentence which described me to perfection (well, apart from “Janice” and the pronouns). I read the rest of the chapter, “When a Picture Does Not Paint A Thousand Words” in a blur. It’s strange how a single sentence can change truths you’ve accepted for as long as you can remember.
Compensating, or how to get away with it
When a teacher, book, or friend asks me to imagine a scene, I close my eyes as expected and pretend to summon an image. I know I can’t do it, so instead I’m sifting through synonyms and combing through memories. In programming terms, I build a graph of the objects in the story, how they connect, and the provided attributes. Like a mind map, I embellish it with any facts or feelings I can remember from past experiences. I worked out early on that a flowery phrase is particularly convincing, so sometimes I’ll even plagarise a book I’ve read to enhance the scene. Then, I can answer questions about the scene by rephrasing what you’ve already told me.
The easiest assumption is that I’m just not concentrating hard enough. I can’t blame people for that, I thought the same for a while. It doesn’t seem likely now – in my job it’s a requirement to be able to concentrate intensely at times. As a child I also thought that I might not be smart enough to do it – perhaps the kids who said they could were just more intelligent (fortunately for me arrogance and egotism soon dismissed this theory). Nor is it that I lack imagination altogether – I can be creative, I have original ideas and I can conceptualise objects which don’t exist. I simply lack the ability to picture things (and it doesn’t end with stereotypical meditation metaphors).
You look unfamiliar
Here’s a little test for you. Pause your music, clear your mind, and stop eating for a minute. Read the following, then try it, eyes closed: Picture in your mind somebody who you see every day. Simple, right? I’m told typical people can picture something quite detailed, maybe even photographic in detail. Now consider this: I can’t picture anybody I work with, and I’ve known some of them for at over five years. I also can’t picture friends, cousins, or even my mother.
It’s not the easiest thing to admit, because it makes me sound cold, or at least somewhat forgetful. That said though, I know what people “look” like, I just don’t recognise them by their faces. Instead I’m looking at how they move, act, react, smell, or sound. I make a conscious effort to remember facts about people: eye and hair colour, relative height, personality. The most useful thing is context. If I’ve only ever seen somebody in one context, the chances of me knowing them in another are slim to none. I can expect to see a set of around twenty people in the office, and maybe 50 in Norwich with any regularity. If somebody isn’t in the set of expected people, it will take me a lot longer to work out who they are (Like anybody else, at this point I’ll be stalling while I frantically try to work it out).
A question I dread is “Can you tell what’s different?”. If somebody has a subtle hair cut, or I haven’t memorised a description of what it looked like before, I have no idea. There is no mental image to compare the new appearance to, so I have to guess. It’s usually hair, so get a quick compliment in, then evade any further questions. Actually, I’ve discovered you can appear to notice hair cuts using a combination of noticing other people noticing (hair crop co-copping) and guesses based on past frequency (hair cut correlation). I’d be up the creek if humans developed the ability to shape shift.
Like many neurological conditions, prosopagnosia (the inability to recognise familiar faces), seems to exist as a spectrum. Somewhere on the easy side of things are people like me, who can’t picture or easily recognise faces. Luckily, we can compensate using visual or anecdotal facts; people with other neurological issues may not be able to do this. At the extreme end there are those who cannot even recognise their own reflection.
The title You Look Unfamiliar comes from a piece by Oliver Sacks. Some years ago the late, great neurologist wrote about his own struggle with face blindness in the New Yorker. Amongst the usual charming anecdotes and compelling narrative, Sacks relates how face blindness often goes hand-in-hand with a difficulty recognising places. This is also the case for me: I can’t picture routes, or remember with clarity routes I’ve taken before. I have tactics for when I get lost, including counting the frequency of buses (if there are more going one way than another, you’re probably heading towards a station) and following the path of rivers (settlements are often centred on them). You can imagine how useful Street View is – I can just “travel” the route before I walk it, and memorise a few facts.
Another case of mistaken identity
When I was drafting this article last week, I passed the wife of a colleague in the street. Marching my usual brisk morning pace, I was alongside her when I noticed she was looking at me closely. An internal alarm bell sounds. I see this facial expression a lot, it’s a mix of “does he remember who I am” and “is he blanking me”. On this occasion, I returned a quick glance and deduced that she was my I.T. teacher, Mrs Abegglen. Given that I haven’t seen her for many years, I decided she was just confused too, and carried on walking. Seeing said colleague later, something about his gait or expression pointed out my mistake. I’d seen his wife only a week before, in company with him and pushing a pram with infant. I haven’t asked, but it seems pretty unlikely she was also teaching I.T. under a different name ten years ago.
If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy part II, where I go into a little more detail about my coping mechanisms and the curious effects of photos and lucid dreams.
- The title “A Life Without Faces” isn’t intended as melodramatic; it’s actually a reference to an on-going serial my friend is writing, which I really must get round to reading.