Eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about the strange condition of Face-Blindness in A Neurologist’s Notebook, The New Yorker (August 30, 2010):
Shakespeare’s King Duncan laments that “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” He’s speaking of traitorous Cawdor, whom he trusted, just as the newly-named Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth, enters. It is, of course, Macbeth who will murder Duncan in his bed before the end of Act I. No art to find the mind’s construction in the face? True then, true now.
But what if, not merely could we not “find the mind’s construction in the face,” but we could not even read IDENTITY from someone’s face?
There are people who have perfect sight, are able to distinguish two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, and yet can only “read” those features as belonging to a stranger — even if they belong in reality to a spouse, child, or sweetheart.
Impossible? No, it’s a neurological condition called prosopagnosia. The author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices, and many other chronicles of neurological malfunctions, this time is writing from the inside. Oliver Sacks himself suffers from prosopagnosia:
“My problem with recognizing faces extends not only to my nearest and dearest but also to myself. Thus, on several occasions I have apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man was myself in a mirror.”
Oliver Sacks has long had a reputation for shyness and reserve. Knowing of his affliction, who would wonder why?
Prosopagnosia is an unusual but not rare condition. In its severest form, true “face-blindness,” it is estimated to affect six to eight million people in the US alone; this is roughly 2.5 percent of the population. Including those with a milder form who are below average in face identification adds perhaps another ten percent. (Incidentally, it is not only faces that may go unrecognized and unremembered, but routes and places as well.)
That is as large or larger a percentage than the neurological minority of persons with dyslexia. Yet which condition have you heard of, and which seems almost unimaginable? Which do you think receives aid and services, and which does not?
Another sufferer from prosopagnosia, ironically enough, is the painter Chuck Close. He is renowned for gigantic portraits composed of innumerable tiny squares that are unintelligible up close, yet resolve at a distance into recognizable faces. Perhaps it isn’t ironic at all, but altogether logical, that this Close/close observer of faces who cannot, himself, recognize them, should be obsessed with the problem of doing so.
Sacks quotes Close as saying, “I don’t know who anyone is and essentially have no memory at all for people in real space…. But when I flatten them out in a photograph I can commit that image to memory’.” It is perhaps this deficiency itself that has shaped Close’s unique artistic vision.
Sacks and Close and other sufferers have devised various coping strategies to manage in the world. But however well or poorly they manage, they will never be able to join Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady when he sings regretfully about Eliza, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face.”
Do search out the New Yorker article and read the whole thing: Sacks is a wonderful writer. Then think about it the next time you glance casually in the mirror, or delightedly see a friend coming toward you down the street, and be thankful.
(There’s a podcast by Sacks about the New Yorker article on their website.)