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I Heart Oliver Sacks
March 2, 2011 7:30 AM   Subscribe

I never knew that renowned neurologist & author Oliver Sacks, who has written about prosopagnosia, suffers from it himself! Most notably, he addressed prosopagnosia in his 1985 publication, The Man who Mistook his Wife for A Hat. These video clips are from a discussion at last year's World Science Festival in New York about this very topic & how I came to learn of Dr. Sacks' first-hand experience.

Can I catch it?
Coping with prosopagnosia.
posted by PepperMax (35 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I like Oliver Sacks, but I hate the cover of his latest since it says " O Liver Sacks," which, which when sung sounds like a hymn to a bag of organs.
posted by jonmc at 7:32 AM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like Oliver Sacks, but I hate the cover of his latest since it says " O Liver Sacks," which, which when sung sounds like a hymn to a bag of organs.

To the tune of "O Tannenbaum," no less.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:34 AM on March 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


These videos are fascinating. Chuck Close: "When you're this way you have to find other ways to prove your intelligence... we have to prove to people that we care about them even though we don't recognize their faces and can't remember their names." I love him talking about his "charm offensive"
posted by jessamyn at 7:39 AM on March 2, 2011


Wow. I never knew that either. Huh.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:41 AM on March 2, 2011


Sacks-Minnelli Disease: Join us, and together, we will find a cream (context).

The other important piece of information you should know about Oliver Sacks: He eats the same thing for dinner every night. Ditto for dessert and most other meals.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:42 AM on March 2, 2011


PepperMax: I never knew that renowned neurologist & author Oliver Sacks, who has written about prosopagnosia, suffers from it himself!

He's definitely mentioned this in print, maybe in a recent New Yorker article? I'm not 100% sure, but I know I've seen him talk about prosopagnosia in the first person.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:43 AM on March 2, 2011


Here is the full audio of the event at the WSF, as aired on WNYC's Fantastic program Radiolab.
posted by inturnaround at 7:47 AM on March 2, 2011


Previously.

I once met someone who lived in his building who said she'd met him at a lecture and he was rude to her though he's always friendly when they meet in the hall at home. It wasn't until knowing about his prosopagnosia that I understood what the situation actually was.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:50 AM on March 2, 2011


Ironically, I also learned about Oliver Sacks's prosopagnosia here on the blue.
posted by rusty at 8:00 AM on March 2, 2011


Serendipity weirdness! I met a guy the night before last with prosopagnosia. I had never heard of it and have been meaning to Google it. So, uh, thanks for saving me some typing.
posted by functionequalsform at 8:03 AM on March 2, 2011


I have a mild version of this too. For me, I can learn faces. For most faces it takes about 3-6 encounters, depending on the duration of contact and how distinctive their face is. Although I know people who change their hair style and it renders them unrecognizable, even after dozens of meetings. Usually once I learn a face it sticks.

A few years ago I was at a wedding reception seated at a table with two friends and six strangers. I went around and introduced myself to the people I didn't know. Just as I said my name to the last couple, the woman said, "Well of course we remember you, Kevin, you came to our wedding!"

I think I'm getting better with practice. Also I try to spend a little time on Facebook looking at the profile pics of people it would be socially awkward not to recognize.
posted by justkevin at 8:06 AM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


My mom leaned about prosopagnosia during a 15 second segment on the evening news. She claims she suffers from it, and given what I know of her I tend to believe her. I don't, however, understand how she can always recognize Jesus's face when it appears on a rock or a baked potato.
posted by bondcliff at 8:10 AM on March 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Sacks talks about his face-blindness (and other blindness) in his new book, _The Mind's Eye_, which collects a lot of New Yorker articles.

Any discussion of faceblindness should include a link to www.faceblind.org, and to the Cambridge Face Memory Test. Even though I score well on it, I was surprised how stressful I found recognizing faces without hair/clothing/accoutrement cues.
posted by endless_forms at 8:15 AM on March 2, 2011


I have pretty severe prosopagnosia. I've had to develop a range of coping mechanisms, especially with regard to teaching classes of students where I have to get to know each individual and track their contribution and progress. On the whole, though, I just have to be effusively friendly with everybody on the grounds that they might be my friend. It's not actually a bad way to live one's life!

One of my most important coping aids is a set of logos I've developed which I can assign to students. I put the logos on placards in front of each student and I get to associate the personality and progress of the student with the logo rather than the face. This allows me to teach up to about sixty students at a time. Good enough for teaching undergrads, but probably not good enough for teaching large classes in, say, a high school setting.

Long after coming up with the logo system, I realised that I have all sorts of symbolic associations that other people around me just don't have. I'm absolutely fascinated by heraldry: flags, badges, uniforms, college scarves, and so on. Since childhood I've found these things actively entertaining in a way that I find hard to explain to others. This makes me wonder if these symbols are tweaking a part of my brain that would ordinarily be busy recognising faces. Indeed, do we owe the study of vexillology to face blind people having fun with the simple pleasures of recognising things?
posted by Dreadnought at 8:29 AM on March 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


Oliver Sacks is a complete mess. I say that with the utmost respect. I've never read any of his books, but I've heard quite a few interviews with him over the years, and every one seems to reveal some new physical/medical malady. The prosopagnosia will perhaps become less problematic given that he had a tumor in one of his eyes several years ago and his sight is failing. I believe at this point what vision he has left is 2-D. The radiolab interview with he and Chuck Close is fascinating. Given Closes's work I was floored when it was revealed that he suffered from prosopagnosia. And then it made perfect sense. I'm always amazed at the hurdles some people manage to get over.
posted by kidkilowatt at 8:43 AM on March 2, 2011


I am some kind of FACE WIZARD cause I got a 92% on that test.
posted by The Whelk at 8:44 AM on March 2, 2011


T. Whelk, I got a 96% which completely destroys my oft-used excuse that all you white people look alike.

I'm amazed at how common this phenomenon is amongst the MeFi responses, which truly affirms that one really doesn't ever know what another's battles area.
posted by PepperMax at 8:54 AM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have enjoyed many of Sacks' books.

But in an awful lot of them, Sacks turns out to suffer an episode of whatever neurological problem he's studying. In Migraine, I think he said he studied migraines because he suffered from them. In A Leg To Stand On, he broke his leg and had some sort of psychological paralysis similar to what some of his patients had. That's just off the top of my head, and I'm pretty sure there are more examples that I'm forgetting.

So now he's got prosopagnosia, too. How likely is it, really, that one person would have all these exotic neurological problems? It's not impossible, I guess, but it seems off-puttingly questionable.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:54 AM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have enjoyed many of Sacks' books.

But in an awful lot of them, Sacks turns out to suffer an episode of whatever neurological problem he's studying. In Migraine, I think he said he studied migraines because he suffered from them. In A Leg To Stand On, he broke his leg and had some sort of psychological paralysis similar to what some of his patients had. That's just off the top of my head, and I'm pretty sure there are more examples that I'm forgetting.

So now he's got prosopagnosia, too. How likely is it, really, that one person would have all these exotic neurological problems? It's not impossible, I guess, but it seems off-puttingly questionable.


Yes, and to repeat a point I made a couple of years ago and got blasted for and will be blasted for again, he's a writer who talks in detail about every aspect of his biography including his being Jewish, incredibly fucking economically and culturally advantaged, possessed of a gorgeous gym-toned body (in A Leg...) and the minutiae of all his neurological issues, but has never once even alluded to the fact that he's gay. And yes, he's gay.

Cue the "why should that matter." It matters for the same reason it matter that he's Jewish or that his parents were both physicians. He writes about himself with complete, neverending self-absorption but he leaves THAT part out? Come the fuck on, people.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:51 AM on March 2, 2011


ethnomethodologist: he's a writer who talks in detail about every aspect of his biography...

You're assuming that he talks about everything. It's quite possible that there are a great many parts if his life he doesn't talk or write about, for whatever reason.
posted by barkingpumpkin at 10:03 AM on March 2, 2011


The Cambridge Face Memory test was interesting. I've always thought I had a problem with face recognition, and I got 63% on the test, which isn't terrible, but they suggested that scores of below 65% may indicate a problem.

I was able to get most of the normal faces right, I think, by specifically memorising details such as eyebrows or cheekbones. I couldn't seem to recognise most of the faces as a whole. Once they changed to noisy images I was hopeless.
posted by badmoonrising at 10:04 AM on March 2, 2011


Interesting! I got 100% on the Cambridge Face Memory test. The blurry ones were easier for me; not sure why.
posted by catlet at 10:22 AM on March 2, 2011


Catlet - it's clear that you're the ultimate FACE WIZARD *salaam*
posted by PepperMax at 10:50 AM on March 2, 2011


I got a 60% on the face test. A good chunk of those were blind luck, too. In the "which one of these three was in your six" section, I had a lot of times where all three looked like faces I'd never seen before.

Apparently I really *am* shit with faces.
posted by paisley henosis at 10:53 AM on March 2, 2011


83% here, which is far better than I thought I would do. I get anxious when I have to find people I know, but don't know that well, in crowds (even small crowds, like coffee shops); I fret that I'm not going to recognize them. Pseudo-prosopagnosia? Prosopagnosiaphobia?
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:07 AM on March 2, 2011


92%, though I'm sure it was 100% before the fuzzy face part.
posted by stbalbach at 11:10 AM on March 2, 2011


Speaking of famous writers with impediments, David Mitchell says "The King’s Speech is the first film to portray my speech defect realistically".
posted by stbalbach at 11:13 AM on March 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


In case anyone is unfamiliar with Chuck Close, he is an artist who specializes in painting faces. Any opportunity to see his work should not be missed.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 11:30 AM on March 2, 2011


But in an awful lot of them, Sacks turns out to suffer an episode of whatever neurological problem he's studying. In Migraine, I think he said he studied migraines because he suffered from them. In A Leg To Stand On, he broke his leg and had some sort of psychological paralysis similar to what some of his patients had. That's just off the top of my head, and I'm pretty sure there are more examples that I'm forgetting.

So now he's got prosopagnosia, too. How likely is it, really, that one person would have all these exotic neurological problems? It's not impossible, I guess, but it seems off-puttingly questionable.


Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but neither prosopagnoisa nor migraine are particularly exotic. 5.6% of American men experienced at least one migraine in the year before being surveyed (and the prevalence was higher in white men, into which category I'm assuming Sachs would be lumped). The prevalance of congenital prosopagnosia has been estimated at around 2.5%, though there may have been biases in that sample (can't tell you which way, though).

And, well, further, you're making the assumption that the various neurological conditions are unlinked. There may well be some overarching neuroatypicality which is feeding into the different sets of symptoms.

OTOH, I personally tend to be slightly gullible and assume what people say about themselves is true.
posted by endless_forms at 12:42 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


endless_forms: "Any discussion of faceblindness should include a link to www.faceblind.org, and to the Cambridge Face Memory Test. Even though I score well on it, I was surprised how stressful I found recognizing faces without hair/clothing/accoutrement cues"

I took the Famous Faces test, and took a certain amount of joy in naming Reagan as "Asshole" and George W. Bush as "Asshole Jr." and being able to tell the test in both instances that I was correct.
posted by pjern at 2:11 PM on March 2, 2011


Holy crap, 60% on the normal faces, but I did perfect* on the celeb faces. That's really weirding me out.

*the Tony Blair photo looked nothing like Tony Blair, to me, and I don't really know what Margaret Thatcher looks like, though I'm familiar with who she is.
posted by paisley henosis at 3:37 PM on March 2, 2011


I got 93% on the Cambridge Face Test, which makes me wonder how reliable it is. I absolutely suck at remembering faces (and names, too) and a lot of the time I had no idea which face was the right one so I just picked the guy in the middle. Maybe the faces aren't arranged totally randomly?
posted by Quietgal at 3:47 PM on March 2, 2011


functionequalsform: "Serendipity weirdness! I met a guy the night before last with prosopagnosia. I had never heard of it and have been meaning to Google it. So, uh, thanks for saving me some typing."

It's called Baader-Meinhof. You'll be hearing about it again soon.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:11 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


...I personally tend to be slightly gullible and assume what people say about themselves is true.
I don't suspect that he's making stuff up so much as I get the feeling that he's really suggestible. I won't ever know for certain, of course.
posted by Western Infidels at 7:09 AM on March 4, 2011


Both those guys in that long video had a number of neurological problems due to some kind of brain defect of some sort. It's not very unsurprising that someone with a problem that'd result in face blindness might also get a lot of migraines.
posted by floam at 2:23 PM on March 9, 2011


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