Seeing in others when we can’t see ourselves

5th November 2016 by Judith Harvey

Seeing in others when we can’t see ourselves

I’m just not very good at faces. I didn’t give it any thought until 2010, when I read an article by Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and author of The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Sachs struggled to recognise anybody – patients, colleagues, friends, his family. When he discovered that a brother had the same problem, he deduced that this was probably a genetic trait.

In 1947 a German neurologist described three cases of a specific form of facial agnosia and coined the term prosopagnosia. Autopsies of sufferers showed that they all have lesions in the right visual-association cortex, but until recently face-blindness continued to be put down to shyness, absent-mindedness, bad manners, and that catch-all for any problem with interpersonal relationships, Asperger’s Syndrome.

As always, for sufferers, receiving a diagnosis and knowing they are not alone make living with the condition a bit less stressful. And prosopagnosia is receiving more publicity. In 2011 consultant gastroenterologist David Fine wrote in the BMJ about the difficulties face-blindness causes him and the strategies he uses to reduce them. He manages, with some difficulty, on a day-to-day basis but networking at meetings is a near-impossible task and he feels that prosopagnosia has hampered his career. There are now blogs, discussion groups and articles in the press.

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