Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Facing facts

"I'm sorry, but I have no idea who you are."

I can't tell you how many times I've had to utter that sentence.  Regular readers of Skeptophilia know why; I have a peculiar disability called prosopagnosia, or "face blindness."  I have a nearly complete inability to recognize faces, even of people I've known for some time.

Well, that's not exactly true.  I recognize people differently than other people do.  I remember the people I know as lists of features.  I know my wife has curly brown hair and freckles and an infectious smile, but I honestly have no mental image of her.  I can't picture my own face, although -- like with my wife -- I could list some of my features.

That system doesn't have a high success rate, however, and a lot of the time I have no idea who the people around me are, especially in a place where there are few clues from context.  I have pretty serious social anxiety, and my condition makes it worse, having put me in the following actual situations:
  • introducing myself twice to the same person at a party
  • getting a big, enthusiastic hug and an "it's been so long!" from someone in our local gym, and never figuring out who I was talking to
  • having two of my students switch seats and not realizing it for three weeks, until finally they 'fessed up
  • going to see a movie, and not knowing until the credits rolled that the main characters were played by Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and Johnny Depp
  • countless incidents of my fishing for clues ("so, how's your, um... spouse, parents, kids, pets, job..."), sometimes fruitlessly
My anxiety has made me really good at paying attention to, and recalling, other cues like voice, manner of dress, posture, walk, hair style, and so on.  But when one or more of those change -- such as with the student I had one year who cut her hair really short during the summer, and whom I didn't recognize when she showed up in one of my classes on the first day of school the following year -- it doesn't always work.

One up side to the whole thing is that I do get asked some funny questions.  One student asked me if when I looked at people, their faces were invisible.  Another asked me if when I look in the bathroom mirror in the morning, I don't know that's me.  (It's a pretty shrewd guess that it is me, since there's generally no one else in there at the time.)

But at least it's not as bad as the dumb questions that my former students who are identical triplets sometimes get.  One of them was once asked by a friend how she kept track of which triplet she was.

No, I'm not kidding.  Neither, apparently, was the person who asked the question.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Randallbritten, FaceMachine screenshots collage, CC BY-SA 3.0]

In any case, all of this comes up because of some research that came out in the journal Cortex last week that tried to parse what's happening (or what's not happening) in the brains of people like me.  Some level of prosopagnosia affects about one person in fifty; some of them lose their facial recognition ability because of a stroke or other damage to the fusiform gyrus, the part of the brain that seems to be a dedicated face-memory module.  Others, like me, were born this way.  Interestingly, a lot of people who have lifelong prosopagnosia take a while to figure it out; for years, I just thought I was unobservant, forgetful, or a little daft.  (All three of those might be true as well, of course.)  It was only after I had enough embarrassing incidents occur, and -- most importantly -- saw an eye-opening piece about face blindness by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, that I realized what was going on.

In any case, last week's paper looked at trying to figure out why people who are face-blind often do just fine on visual perception tests, then fail utterly when it comes to remembering photographs of faces.  The researchers specifically tried to parse whether the difference was coming from an inability to connect context cues to the face you're seeing (e.g., looking at someone and thinking, "She's the woman who was behind the counter at the library last week") versus simple familiarity (the more nebulous and context-free feeling of "I've seen that person before").  They showed each test subject (some of whom weren't face-blind) a series of 120 faces, then a second series of 60 faces where some of them were new and some of them were in the previous series.  The researchers were not only looking for whether the subjects could correctly pick out the old faces, but how confident they were in their answers -- the surmise being that low confidence on correct answers was an indicator of relying on familiarity rather than context memory.

The prosopagnosics in the test group not only were bad at identifying which faces were old and which ones they'd seen before; but their confidence was really low, even on the ones they got right.  Normally-sighted people showed a great deal more certainty in their answers.  What occurs to me, though, is that knowing they're face-blind would skew the results, in that we prosopagnosics are always doubtful we're recalling correctly.  So these data could be a result of living with the condition, not some kind of underlying mechanism at work.  I almost never greet someone first, because even if I think I might know them, I'm never certain.  A lot of people think I'm aloof because of this, but the reality is that I honestly don't know which of the people I'm seeing are friends and which are total strangers.

One thing about the researchers' conclusion does ring true, however.  The subconscious "feeling of familiarity" is definitely involved.  My experience of face blindness isn't that I feel like I'm surrounded by strangers; it's more that everyone looks vaguely familiar.  The problem is, that feeling is no stronger when I see a close friend than when I see someone I've never met before, so the intensity of that sense -- what apparently most people rely on -- doesn't help me.

So that's the view of the world through the eyes of someone who more often than not doesn't know who he's looking at.  Fortunately for me, (1) at this point in my life I'm unembarrassed by my condition, and (2) most of the people in my little village know I'm face-blind and will say, "Hi, Gordon, it's Steve..." when they walk up, and spare me the awkwardness of fishing for clues.  (Nota bene: This only works if it actually is Steve.  Otherwise it would be even more awkward.)  But hopefully some good will come from this research, because face blindness is kind of a pain in the ass.

"Our results underscore that prosopagnosia is a far more complex disorder that is driven by more than deficits in visual perception," said study first author Anna Stumps, a researcher in the Boston Attention Learning Laboratory at VA Boston.  "This finding can help inform the design of new training approaches for people with face blindness."

Which would be really, really nice.


This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is for anyone fascinated with astronomy and the possibility of extraterrestrial life: The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World, by Sarah Stewart Johnson.

Johnson is a planetary scientist at Georgetown University, and is also a hell of a writer.  In this book, she describes her personal path to becoming a respected scientist, and the broader search for life on Mars -- starting with simulations in the most hostile environments on Earth, such as the dry valleys of central Antarctica and the salt flats of Australia, and eventually leading to analysis of data from the Mars rovers, looking for any trace of living things past or present.

It's a beautifully-told story, and the whole endeavor is tremendously exciting.  If, like me, you look up at the night sky with awe, and wonder if there's anyone up there looking back your way, then Johnson's book should be on your reading list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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