Most of us recognise people we’ve seen before. We recognise our friends, our family, our enemies, famous faces like politicians and musicians, we recognise the different characters in TV shows and films. Yes, we all have those days when we’re useless at recognising people, and some of us (like Tallulah from Bugsy Malone) are fine with faces, it’s just names we have a problem with. But how confusing would like be if every face we saw was a new face to us: if people we’d met before, or known for years, had an unrecognisable face?
This isn’t science fiction: this is prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”. Prosopagnosia is not new: it’s been researched for many years (some reports go back as far as the 19th century, with case studies from Hughlings Jackson and Charcot), but there has been a surge in studies in recent years.
Usually, prosopagnosia has been observed in people who have had some form of acute brain damage (from localised head injuries such as a bullet wound, or from a virus such as encephalitis), which results in this loss of face recognition. However, a developmental version of the condition has recently been discovered: people who are born without an ability to recognise faces. A recent article that was brought to my attention relates what appears to be this latter form of prosopagnosia.
Prosopagnosia even got a bit of prime-time publicity on BBC’s The One Show when my supervisor (Dr Jansari) talked about David, with whom he works, who suffers from profound face blindness. He simply does not recognise faces at all, no matter how many times he’s seen it before. He has no problems recognising other things, and frequently uses these other cues to recognise people: he can recognise people by their hairstyle, clothes or (once they start talking) their voice. This suggests something that many cognitive psychologists have suspected for a long time: faces are special.
So where do I fit in to all of this? Well, it’s the subject of my dissertation. I know, I know, I previously talked at length about synaesthesia, and that is still a huge interest for me (in fact, I’ve been recruiting synaesthetes for the UEL research team, and I will hopefully be involved in the research process as an extra curricular activity). However, having discussed it with Dr Jansari, we decided the face recognition study would have a greater value for me as an aspiring clinician.
And here we are. On Monday, I met the lady (SE) with whom I shall be working over the next year. It was a purely a meet-and-greet, a discussion over a cup of tea. I’m glad that I’m working with her, as she is lovely, and very enthusiastic about the study. SE is particularly interesting, because she can recognise faces that she has known for a long time (at least 6 months), but won’t recognise people out of context (i.e. if she saw a work colleague in town, she wouldn’t recognise them). However, she did recognise someone as “Mr Angry” – she had never met this man, but had seen his photo in an article about him in a newspaper. So what is it that makes her recognise some faces and not others? Well, hopefully my study can cast some light on the subject. We’ll have to wait and see.