Friday, February 24, 2012

Often unable to save face

Recently, I saw a movie called (uncleverly) Faces in the Crowd, in which a woman takes brain damage as a result of a fall. Brain damage is, as a storytelling device, loads of fun. It allows writers to examine our normal lives through the lens of impairment. In this case, she develops a marked case of prosopagnosia.

Prosopagnosia is commonly called “face blindness”, and there are many levels of the disorder, most of them accessible through brain trauma. Sufferers display varying levels of difficulty in facial recognition. In severe cases, the person may be unable to recognize anyone, even themselves, and must continually fall back on other cues as to who people are.In the movie, of course, the damage was taken while evading a serial killer (what else could it have been?).

So the killer plays a rather unimaginative game of cat and mouse with the protagonist, knowing that she’ll never be able to recognize him later on. In the movie, the prosopagnosia is shown by having multiple actors play each character, with changes of actor coming whenever the character’s face goes out of view.The actors were all similar, of course, but the idea was to make the viewer vaguely uncomfortable, by defeating their natural recognition by continually changing the character’s features.I, however, just barely noticed, and usually didn’t see the transitions at all

.I have prosopagnosia, you see. So the movie didn’t work for me. Sigh, Yet another theatrical masterpiece, spoiled by neurological deficiencies!

I’ve only become aware of this in recent years. I have a lifetime’s irritating habit of monitoring the way my mind works (this goes way, way beyond introspection), and have always known I was bad at recognizing faces. I have memories of saying this exact thing to people at nearly every age.

“I’m really bad at names and faces,” I hear myself say, over and over, “so if I don’t recognize you next time, don’t get mad, or anything.”

“Oh, I’m no good at that either,” was the usual response. But my no good was at a whole other level than theirs, I was almost certain. And I must have been mostly right, because I can’t count the number of times I’ve have strangers walk up to me and greet me by name.

“Hey!” I’d gush, feigning pleasure at seeing them. “How’s it going?” This gambit to learn something that might jog my memory as to who this person might be is pretty weak, since most people just give you a placeholder answer, rather than a fact.

I used to think my poor skill at remembering faces was sort of ironic, given my lifelong interest in portraiture, and drawing people. But recently I’ve begun to wonder if my striving for technical skill in this area isn’t some sort of coping mechanism, a new set of hooks to hang my visual impression on, a way to categorize features so that I might be better at recalling the face as a whole. And perhaps this has worked. Who can say how bad I would be at this if I didn’t have this habit to fall back on?

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