By Frederic Friedel
Sounds like a great obscure movie title (remember Shawshank Redemption)? Well, before you google it, let me dig into the story. Everything will be clear in the end.
Vera is one of the smartest people I know. She has a doctorate in Quantum Physics and String Theory, speaks at least five different languages, fluently, is an expert on German poetry, draws and paints beautifully, plays the violin at concert level, writes sumptuous prose — and all that before she had reached the age of 30 (which now she has gracefully done).
Vera is also a great sport, with a keen sense of humour. I kept meeting her for a few years, and then it became imperative to introduce her to the family. The opportunity arose when she was in Hamburg on a publication mission — she had taken over the physics department of one of the biggest publishing houses in Europe, Springer. I told her I would pick her up at her hotel, and when I arrived there I saw her standing in front of the entrance. There was no parking spot and I waved for her to come over. She glanced at me and then looked away.
Well, I found a place to park some distance away and walked over to her. She greeted me effusively, hug and kisses, and we walked back to the car. “Why didn’t you come over when I waved to you before?” I asked. “I didn’t see you,” she replied. “You did. We clearly made eye contact, and then you looked away. What happened?” Vera was silent for some minutes. Then she said: “Okay, Frederic, I have prosopagnosia.” — “Face blindness,” she hastened to add.
Prosopagnosia is a cognitive disorder where people cannot recognize faces, while other visual faculties are unaffected. It can be caused by an accident involving brain damage (“acquired prosopagnosia”), but is often, as in Vera’s case, congenital. This latter form affects, to a more or less severe degree, about 2.5% of the population.
It is clear that there are areas of the brain that specialize in face recognition. In a normal person they are activated in response to face stimuli and permit wondrous feats. In experiments I have led subjects into a roomful of people, known to them, and then pulled them out in less than one second. I then asked them who was in the room, and they could usually name everyone, and even describe their demeanour (“…and Sally, who was looking quite unhappy”). An incredibly accurate high-speed scan. When I asked them about pictures hanging on the wall or what was on the table they were at a loss. Clearly recognizing faces is a specialized activity in the brain.
This ability is absent in Vera’s inferior occipital areas. She cannot recognize anyone by just looking at them — not even herself in a mirror, when there are other people in her visual field (she habitually moves a hand in such cases to be sure she is looking at herself). That is why she didn’t recognize me waving to her in my car. Vera — did I mention? — is a very attractive young lady, and must treat a man driving by, waving and inviting her into his car, with a certain degree of caution.
So how did she recognize me when I approached her? “By your voice,” she said. “That is the way I recognize most people.” It was hard to believe. I had met Vera about a dozen times, often in a social environment, with many diverse and interesting people. Never noticed a thing. She mingles and chats like any other person.
Well, the prosopagnosia thing intrigued me, and the next time I was due to meet her I had an experiment prepared. She was standing in a crowded room with dozens of people around her. I simply walked up, stood there smiling at her, saying nothing. Complete silence. Within a few seconds Vera said, “Frederic, great that you are here, lovely to see you again,” with the customary hug and kisses. “You lied to me,” I said, “you recognized me without hearing my voice.” Her explanation: “I was expecting you to show up, and nobody else would do this to me: stand in front of me and simply smile. I’m not stupid Frederic, I knew it was you.”
So on to the next test. We had arranged to meet in a hotel in southern Germany, where I was with a colleague, mathematics professor Christian Hesse. I took Christian, who knows Vera, into the cafeteria and gave him careful instructions. Vera would look around the lobby, not see us, and then enter the cafeteria. We, I told Christian, would glance up at her and then look away without smiling or anything. Just continue talking. It worked like clockwork, exactly as planned. Except that Vera walked over to us and greeted us enthusiastically, with normal pleasantries. So, how did she do that? She explained that she had scanned the room and found only two candidates that matched the people she was going to meet. She can tell age, approximately, and recognize clothes and things. She did it all without breaking her stride.
I have now a fairly comprehensive knowledge of Vera’s prosopagnosia. She has explained it to me: “People with my condition have to find workarounds. For example, I would always recognize you in a place where we are supposed to meet and where it’s only you and a mathematician sitting there and waiting — what a simple challenge! Also, I remember hair, skin colour and texture, glasses, height of a person, and of course especially the voice. That is the way I can recognize who is who — unless there is someone around looking too similar. However, I am very bad when I meet a person by surprise, in a place I didn’t expect to see them. In such cases it even takes me some time to recognize my husband or my sister. But what is nice is that when I am trying to identify my husband, I often think: oh, that fellow is really good-looking — only to then realize: Wow, it is my husband! I think that’s not too bad.”
Recently I sent Vera a link to this article which I thought describes her condition fairly accurately. “I laughed when I saw the picture,” she wrote. “That’s exactly the way I see people. Now you know, Frederic.”