Prosopagnosia: Do I Know You?
I'd like to include, as part of this section, one of the more interesting topics that I had to write about for school last semester. I found prosopagnosia - the inability to recognizes faces - to be fascinating. In our class, led by Professor Patricia Lindemann, we had to take an article on the subject and write about it by bringing in and expanding upon the concepts that we had learned in class. Not being allowed to go over two pages, while including all the necessary information, was a challenge! But I was pretty happy with this one. I hope you enjoy learning about this bizarre disorder as much as I did! :) Here's my paper. Let me know what you think!
I chose to evaluate the article “About Face”, written by Eric Jaffe, on prosopagnosia. Sometimes referred to as face blindness (Lindemann, 7 Feb 2017), prosopagnosia is the inability to recognize faces - even one’s own. While it is well-documented that injury to the brain area responsible for facial recognition results in the inability to perceive “personas”, as Jaffe puts it, there is less known about the acquisition of this ability to categorize information in the first place. (Jaffe, 2008).
A crucial part of the recognition process is the differentiation between sensation and perception (Gleitman, 2011). We see a flashlight – a sensation – our brain categorizes (perceives) that light based on a slew of other information available to the brain. If I’m stuck, maybe that flashlight is perceived as help. If I’m camping alone, maybe that light is perceived as fear of someone unknown approaching. Sensation is the actual information being received by our senses (Gleitman, 2011). Perception is what our brain chooses to do with that information, how it chooses to categorize that information. While the debate rages on regarding whether perceptual categories are innate or are learned through experience, “About Face” looks at what happens when that ability to categorize information received through the senses – specifically in regards to vision and faces – is gone (Jaffe, 2008). Research has shown that there is a specific area of the brain that specializes in facial recognition (as opposed to object recognition): the “Face Area” (Lindemann, 7 Feb 2017). When this area is not working properly, whether through injury to the brain like in a 39-year-old motorcycle accident victim (Jaffe, 2008) or through a congenital defect, the brain can sense the information being fed to it (the brain sees a face) but it is not able to perceive the “persona” that belongs to that face or provide meaning as to who the owner of that face is (Jaffe, 2008). This is also part of the “social system” discussed in “About Face” in which infants tend to seek out faces that are familiar to them. These infants are taking in visual information and are using the facial processing part of their brains to categorize that information as familiar, possibly as safe and comforting (Jaffe, 2008).
But how do we know what to do with the information that our visual system receives? There is much debate over whether we innately know how to process faces (Jaffe, 2008). Many believe in an innate brain ability, shown in Jaffe’s telling of an infant’s almost immediate preference for its mother’s face (2008). Contrarily, there is also evidence that infants do not differentiate between races until about 9 months old (Jaffe, 2008). This idea about the origins of perception is hugely important because, if facial processing abilities are learned, perhaps they can be repaired in someone who has suffered an injury to the “Face Area.” Additionally, if racial perception manifests itself at around 9 months old, with infants processing races other than their own as “groups” instead of individuals (Jaffe, 2008), much work could be done (such as intentional and continual exposure to different ethnicities, especially in specific contexts) in that critical period (Lindemann, 7 Feb 2017) to halt the development of an “othering” mentality.
While there is much to be understood about facial recognition (e.g. how it differs from object recognition, whether it is innate or learned), we can at least be certain, because of brain imaging technology, that prosopagnosia does come from injury to a very specific part of the brain. Congenital prosopagnosia, which appears to be genetic (Jaffe, 2008) on the other hand, needs much research. I wish I could offer myself up for research on this considering how my mother complains about not being able to recognize celebrities and how I also find myself unable to recognize people on the street consistently when they claim to know me very well.