Suddenly I No
Longer Recognized Faces
Today I want to describe something that has recently happened to me,
that no neurotypical human (neurologically typical: NT) can understand.
Nevertheless, I undertake this task hoping that in the end, you
will have a greater understanding of these events.
Everyone who looks into a mirror recognizes himself and can tell
whether he is well groomed, whether he has properly shaved, etc. If he
walks from his home to the street, he will meet familiar and unfamiliar
people. He can put people into these two groups because
he recognizes whether the faces of the people he meets are known to him
or not. Besides people he recognizes, he also sees the houses
and roads in his environment. He knows which way he has to walk to
get to the baker's or the butcher's. He can also get in his car and
drive several kilometers to the place of his employment.
His recognizing of humans and the environment succeeds because he can take
in many details at the same time with healthy eyes and is able to perceive
the variety of these details as an overall picture. Therefore he recognizes
human faces, roads or the beauty of a landscape. These impressions are
well known to every neurotypical person (NT) and therefore appear to
him to be self-evident.
A person who is NT may fear losing his eyesight partly or completely
from an illness or accident. The possibility that a person could be able
to see faces, houses and landscapes, but not be able to identify them
as familiar, seems to NTs to be so strange, that they categorize
it as a "weird story told by a mentally disturbed person."
That, however, may not be the case.
Imagine that one morning you awaken and see a strange woman coming into
your bedroom, asking you what you would like for breakfast. From the voice of this
person, visually unfamiliar to you, you realize that she is your wife.
Astonished with this situation you tell her that you would like to
have bacon and eggs. You then go into the bathroom to shave and
shower. A strange man about to shave looks at you in the mirror.
He has a beard like you; however his face looks strange and
old. You address him, and you hear your own voice escaping from his lips.
A planned trip to a shop is no longer feasible for you, because
you cannot recognize, before you cross the road, whether cars are still
far distant or are quite close and approaching, nor can you tell whether they are
approaching quickly or only slowly. Thus you cannot cross the road alone
but need an assistant. If you go alone and wait until there is no car
traffic on the road, then you don't
recognize a side road, which you have to turn onto to get to the shop.
Therefore you cannot reach the shop if you don't have an assistant
with you. During your solitary walk you meet several women. One of
them in your circle of acquaintances later expresses surprise at your
lack of politeness, because you had not greeted her when passing her in the
street -- something you had always done before. She is not aware that you
had not recognized the person approaching you and therefore had not intended
to offend her personally -- but that you had instead not recognized the face of
that person and therefore couldn't identify her.
The perception of the world changes for you because you cannot correctly
notice colors any longer. Whether something is red, green or blue, remains
a mystery. If necessary, you only have a weak notion of its possible
color, and therefore you cannot select your clothes when dressing without
assistance. Since you can recognize neither fish nor meat nor little other
food as edible, with the exception of recognizing beer cans, you must do
without eating if you don't have assistance. Someone must prepare and
serve everything you eat.
Because of this disorientation you prefer to stay as completely as possible
in your own home. If there is no assistant available to accompany you,
you cannot make necessary visits to physicians or clinics. Due to the loss
in your orientation you cannot drive your car by yourself, and you have
to depend on an assistant to drive.
To while away the time you occasionally switch on the television set.
You still remember the buttons you need to push to get a TV program started;
however faces emerge during a well known newscast that are completely strange
to you. Only if they speak do you recognize by voice such people as
the Federal Chancellor or Secretaries of certain Departments, all politicians
well known to you by their faces before. Now they look strange and unrecognizable.
You cannot follow the plot of a television show without an assistant to explain
to you again and again which actor is entering the scene, each time the TV picture
changes. A lucky exception occurs for you if an actor can be
recognized not only from his face but also from his clothes. Columbo,
for example, always wears a certain trenchcoat, and you therefore
can follow his efforts clearing up a murder case without explanations
from an assistant, for you an undreamt-of delight.
As time passes, the prominent faces which appear in newscasts slowly
are recognized by you even before they speak. However, their faces look
different than you remember them from before. Therefore an interesting
question arises concerning pictures of these people you had come to
see and recognize back when you saw and recognized people completely
normally: Can you now recognize such people, if somebody shows you such
photographs? (Famous Faces Test).
First you perform a simple test and leaf through your family photo album,
looking at photos taken a year ago. You realize that you are unable
to recognize a single person although you had personally taken the photos. If
someone tells you where a picture was taken and who the
people in the photo are, slowly the memory of it comes into your mind.
Public figures, such as politicians, artists or sports players, who appear
in newspaper pictures or in old television films, you recognize only
occasionally, and you guess who they are on the basis of unusual details,
such as their hair style or clothes (such as with Columbo, whom I already
There is, however, one very remarkable exception. You used to frequently
make photographic slides of friends and acquaintances in order to paint their
portraits from them. You painted numerous oil pictures with the help of these photos.
Among the 300 or so slides you have, you can recognize the majority of
the people in them clearly, without needing hints from anyone. Here you
are indeed able to see the reality of the person and recognize him.
Why in these cases, but not in all other cases? The following experience
reveals how difficult this question will be to answer. During investigations
of your recognition abilities by research specialists, one day an examiner
shows you three portrait photographs on a screen and requests that you tell him
which of the three faces appear to be rejecting you and which ones are friendly.
You tell him that you see a woman in the center who looks very friendly.
The two other faces of a man have a neutral expression, neither
friendly nor rejecting. You are shocked when the examiner
tells you that all the three photographs contained his face. Although
he sat beside you as you looked at the screen, you did not recognize
him in the pictures.
Why didn't you recognize that examiner on his screen, however you do recognize
slides with portraits of friends made years ago by yourself? You meet the same
examiner the next morning, however you don't recognize him, even not by his
voice, and you tell him about your strange experience with an examiner the day
before, whom you did not recognize on a screen although he sat next to
you at that very moment. Similarly, you are not able to recognize neighbors or
close relatives if you meet them unexpectedly.
The fact that you are not able to recognize people you have seen recently
or some time ago may be caused by the loss of any memories stored in certain
cells (neurons) of your brain. If these cells are damaged, a defect
either in short-time or long-time memory may occur. This evidently
happened to me, as I suffered from a stroke some time ago. This memory
situation in certain brain cells evidently hit the specific ones specialized
in storing the memory of faces. Sometimes, also, other memories such as
those for places, colors, landscapes, or sequences of numbers (e.g.
may be impacted by a stroke. A stroke interrupts the blood supply in
certain areas of the brain, at least for a certain time; therefore the
neurons are not supplied with oxygen during this period and generally
die after some minutes. This death of certain specialized neurons causes
certain defects in the storage of memory.
The story I have been telling is my own story, explaining the stroke-produced
difficulties in orientation as far as faces, places, colors
or sequences of numbers are concerned. The essential assistant in all
cases mentioned was my wife Dorothea. Without her assistance I would
not have been able to continue life at home.
Copyright © 1999 by Dr. Wolfgang Laskowski, All Rights Reserved.