Facelessness, faced

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By | November 1, 2007

After giving a lecture in Windsor, England last February, neuroscientist Bradley Duchaine was approached by a man who'd been in the audience. He told Duchaine, professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, that he sometimes had trouble recognizing faces, even those of people he knew. Duchaine brought him to his lab, ran some tests, and diagnosed him with prosopagnosia, characterized as an inability to recognize familiar faces. "He was certainly atrocious" at recognizing faces, says Duchaine. When given face-memory tests and shown a battery of celebrity photos, "most people get about 80% correct. This [person] scored about 40%." He was British, but "he wasn't recognizing Tony Blair."

While developmental prosopagnosia is estimated to affect some two percent of the world's population, research on the subject is still being accumulated, mostly because human subjects are few and far between. Most of the people Duchaine has tested had found him on the Internet while searching for information about their problem with faces, or they read about him in the news. People with the impairment usually try to hide it, compensating by noticing other clues about a person's identity, such as voice or clothing. Duchaine and his colleagues have tested about 120 people for the symptoms of the disorder, and they performed fMRI brain scans on approximately 10 patients.

People with prosopagnosia usually try to hide it, compensating by noticing other clues about a person's identity.

The concept that certain regions of the brain specialize in face processing was suggested in the late 1960s by Jerry Lettvin, who coined the term "grandmother cell" while a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Early experiments in monkeys showed that specific neurons responded only to hands and faces. Over time, researchers narrowed the regions involved to three areas in the temporal and occipital lobes: specifically, the fusiform face area, occipital face area, and superior temporal sulcus.

The idea that specific brain regions handle facial recognition remained controversial until a year ago, when Doris Tsao from Harvard University and colleagues found neuronal activity that was exclusively triggered by face perception. By inserting miniscule electrodes into these specific regions of the macaque brain, Tsao saw a specific millivoltage produced by neurons in the face regions of the brain that did not occur when the monkeys looked at other objects (Science, 311:670-4, 2006).

Duchaine's fMRI scans show, too, that the three brain regions light up when the patient is looking at pictures of faces. When prosopagnosics see a familiar face, they show the same brain activity in these key areas as when they saw the face for the first time. Nonprosopagnosics, however, show less regional activity when looking at a familiar face, suggesting their brains don't need to work as hard.

So if face recognition is localized to three brain regions, what neurologic changes are behind prosopagnosia? There are some early clues. Cibu Thomas, in collaboration with Marlene Behrmann at Carnegie Mellon University, recently correlated prosopagnosic symptoms with a disruption of the connections between the brain regions involved in face processing. This work, still unpublished, indicates that face-blindness stems from problems in these neuronal networks, and not an impairment within one region or another in the brain. This would also explain why some people with prosopagnosia can have a structurally intact fusiform face area (previously thought to be the only area for face processing) and yet still present with symptoms.

"It turns out there's not just one region but a system of regions [processing faces in some way] - six different patches in the monkey brain," says Tsao. "We're trying to understand what each of them is doing at the level of single cells; one is highly specialized for processing which way someone is looking; another [is] strongly implicated in object recognition." There are many important reasons for face specialization. "We spend an awful lot of time extracting information from faces," says Duchaine. There's "an awful lot of information about who somebody is, what they're looking at, how attractive they are, and there's a measure of debate over how these face processes disassociate" in the brain.


Avatar of: Gayle


Posts: 1

November 28, 2007

Propagnosia is not a disease, but it could be a survival mechanism for people accustomed to negative or unsatisfactory feedback in face-to-face encounters. It is literacy applied to human faces. Just as the illiterate are more impressed by images than the literate, the basic person is more moved by human faces than the circumspect. A propos, the word circumspect describes perfectly the propagnosic's way of "coping" with his "disease" . The invention of this disease is extremely uselful to the United States of America which wishes to suppress people whose faces they don't like and all those poeple who have noticed or are starting to notice the full extent of this supression.
Avatar of: Susan


Posts: 2

November 30, 2007

This is a HUGE problem when it manifests itself and people don't understand that IT'S NOT PERSONAL. \n\nAny links between this problem and autism, or predominantly left-brained people, or hormonal imbalances? What does the brain say about any commonalities with this problem and a specific personality type?
Avatar of: John


Posts: 1

November 30, 2007

I have a mild to moderate case based on my experiences & score in the online tests at Faceblind (http://www.faceblind.org/)\n\nOne does compensate. I need to pay more attention, than the average person, to any clues that the person approaching me recognizes me. The problem, professionally, is dealing with people like Gayle who think I?m ignoring them because I don?t like them. And socially it is about not remembering the faces of people I do like! :(\n\nNot remembering George Bush's face is not sufficient compensation! ;)\n
Avatar of: Rick


Posts: 1

November 30, 2007

For example, in China there is a much higher degree of similarity in outward persona's - i.e. less variation in a persons height, hair color, hair style, skin shade, eye shapes, etc. So I would imagine that innate facial recognition would be found to be much higher in that culture (than in other melting-pot cultures - Europe, USA, Australia). Does any research bear this out? \n\nAlso I understand that facial-recognition ability is one highly regarded qualification sought by the FBI, Secret Service, and the like, who must scan thousands of faces in a crowd on a daily basis. They probably would be interested in this research, though may not be very cooperative in revealing what they already know about the subject.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

January 18, 2008

I am a repeat poster on this issue which is very serious for the future of mental health. This "disease" is at the heart of the debates surrounding the embodied mind and the people classifying it as a disease are well aware of it and can be proud at having confiscated a certain level of consciousness for themselves; but they are dishonest and should be ashamed.\n\nCertainly, there are some innocent persons who simply don't recognize faces, but why is this a disease? As one of the last posters said, in racially homogeneous societies, this perceptual "condition' must be the rule and people must strive to distinguish themselves and others in some other way than by their faces which become as uninformative as font is to letter on a printed page once you are already reading in that font. I wanted to assure John that I believe him if he is manifesting "symptoms" ; I am not belittling his mental reality and I am not one of the people miffed by not being recognized since I am one of the people who does not recognize people primarily by their faces. I suppose I could, if I wanted to make this my priority, jump for joy at recognizing each and every face in my daily life, but I am literate and it would be a step back to illiteracy to find the features of people's faces to be their most salient characteristic. Since many people have no other salient characteristics and possess no personality other than their face (=font), what is there to recognize? The only reason to recognize people by their faces is if those people are women whose attractiveness is supposedly attached to their faces, but oh how temporarily! I say this without malice as I am a woman myself.

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