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GNP-Tagung 2002

Programm SS






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 mentioned).

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. telephone numbers) 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.

This translation from the German by the above copyright holder
was placed on the Internet in this location at his request.