Monday, May 2, 2011

Do I Know You?

     Readers of certain age will remember a whole series of tv commercials 
where a guy comes on the screen and says, “Do you know me?” Then he  

proceeds to tell you what he's famous for, and you still haven't a clue as to  

who he is. Then at the very end, you see his American Express card with his

name on it, and you think, “D'oh! Of course!”

That pretty much explains my whole life.

     In order for this entry to make any sense, I have to explain something. I am faceblind. The official medical term for this is prosopagnosia.  Scientists think it is due to a malfunction in the fusiform gyrus, a part of the brain. Basically, it means I can't remember faces. I see them, but I have a lot of trouble remembering them. I just don't recognize people very well. The more time I spend with someone, the better I get at recognizing him, but it's always a struggle. Mostly, I rely on voice, posture, mannerisms, and dress. I can recognize a lot of people from the back as they walk away from me!

What you see.
Ed from accounting.

What I see.
Ed's mouth and clothes.

The Cheshire Cat.
     For some reason, I remember teeth very well. I couldn't tell you if the cashier at the Safeway wears glasses, but I can damn well remember that space between her front teeth. Hair is helpful, too. I think this big fad for shaving your head is just awful. It makes all men under the age of 30 look alike to me. Bald or very short hair, long “shorts”, sneakers, and a baseball cap. In my world, they are interchangeable drones.

     To be more accurate, it's not so much that I don't recognize people, as I can't tell them apart.  For me, there are about 12 original people in the world. Everyone else is a clone of one of those 12. So actually, I tend to over recognize. It's embarrassing. I tend to greet people I don't know. Or I don't greet people I do know because I'm not sure if it's really them.

     I can get pretty good at recognizing known people if they stay where they're supposed to be. An example would be Joe the baker. If he stays in his bakery, I can be pretty sure it's him. But if he leaves the bakery and walks down the street, well, then he is out of context, and all bets are off.

me: “Isn't that Joe the baker?”
bf: “Oh fer chrissakes, you can't seriously think that's Joe the baker!”
me: “Well, yeah, I mean...he looks like Joe the baker. To me. Doesn't he?”
bf: “NO! He doesn't look ANYTHING like Joe the baker. You're outta yer mind!”

The bf is not known for being over sympathetic. I think he doesn't really believe me.

     When I was young, I once walked right past my mother on Greenpoint Ave. She got mad. Another time, I was in Macy's. I turned a corner and almost walked into a girl about my age. My first thought was, “Gee, that poor girl is ugly.” Then I realized I was looking in a mirror. Cross my heart, that's God's honest truth. Didn't do much for my ego. I still hate mirrors.

     I met a woman at a dog show. We talked for over an hour. The next day, she came up to me and said hello. She acted very friendly, like she knew me. I had no idea who she was. She had changed her clothes and didn't have her dog with her.     
     Movies can be really difficult. The worst ones are from the early 1940's. Black & white, so I can't see skin tones. Everyone speaks in that same, faux-cultured, studio-taught accent. The men are all clean shaven and wear hats and suits. It's prosopagnosia hell. I get all the male actors confused.

me: “Is that the father or the brother?”
bf: “You just asked me that.”
me: “Oh. Sorry. Well, which one is it?”
bf: “Can't you tell? What's wrong with you?”
me: “I have a brain disorder called prosopagnosia. I was born that way. It's a disability. It makes my social life hell.”
bf: “Yeah, you've got a brain disorder, all right.”
me: “Sorry. Yes, actually, I can tell them apart just fine, but I really enjoy annoying you.”
bf: “That's what I thought.”

I mean, honestly---look at these pictures and tell me that each set isn't the same guy!

Aren't I adorable?

     I didn't even know I had a problem until a few years ago. I thought everyone had similar people recognizing abilities, and that I was just a little worse at it than most. I had no idea of the extent of my handicap. When I learned about it, a lot of lights went on in my head. So many things became clear to me. It was a real revelation.
  • Oh, so that's why people always said I was stuck up! I must have walked past them and not said hello.
  • No wonder why I was terrified of getting lost when I was a little child. How could I ever find my mother if we got separated?
  • Of course school was a horror! I went to Catholic school. Everyone wore uniforms. There were nuns. In habits.

     Finding out about it was a good thing. It's helped me to hone what skills I do have, and develop some new ones. It also made me feel better about myself. I used to think I was lazy, that I wasn't trying hard enough to memorize people's faces. Now I understand that normal people don't have to memorize faces. It's just something they do without even thinking about it. I am in awe of this ability.
     I really like people with facial scars or other distinguishing features, like a big nose. It helps.

Two famous people with prosopagnosia:
Oliver Sachs

Jane Goodall

Now, these two I have no trouble telling apart.

Here's a really good page with info: Faceblind

The End.

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