Friday 13 January 2012

Do you have trouble recognizing faces?

The temporal lobe of the brain (forward part of the brain) is partly responsible for our ability to recognize faces. Some neurons in the temporal lobe respond to particular features of faces. That particular lobe is also important for the processing of semantics in both speech and vision. The temporal lobe contains the hippocampus and plays a key role in the formation of long-term memory. Some people who suffer damage to the temporal lobe lose their ability to recognize and identify familiar faces. This disorder is called prosopagnosia. It has been estimated that at least 2% of the general population suffer from this infliction and it isn’t necessarily because of an injury to the right occipitotemporal cortex. The occipital lobe is the visual processing center of the human brain and is at the back of the brain.

Prosopagnosia is also known as facial agnosia or ‘face blindness,’ and it is a neurological disorder that makes facial recognition difficult or impossible. According to Lawton and Reichenberg-Ullman (2007), 66% of those with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) and other social developmental disorders also have some difficulty recognizing faces (Wendt et al., 2005, found a lower prevalence of 46.6%). Research suggests that up to two-thirds of those with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) have difficulty recognizing faces until they have interacted with individuals on a number of occasions.

The human brain contains a number of different sections, which are responsible for different functions. And although these sections are very indistinct, with some sections possessing the ability to take over the functions of other sections if those sections are damaged in some way, these sections do exist.

Individuals with acquired prosopagnosia might have had normal face recognition abilities which have been impaired due to brain damage, such as head trauma, stroke or degenerative disease. However, those with developmental prosopagnosia have never, from earliest childhood, developed the mechanism for normal face recognition.

We all have a ‘Broca’s region of the brain, which plays an important role in speech. There is also more relevantly a particular section of the brain that is responsible for the recognition of faces. When this region is damaged, an individual may completely lose their ability to recognize faces, even those faces that belong to close relatives or friends. Prosopagnosia runs the gamut from being mild to being extreme.

Fortunately, prosopagnosia doesn’t interfere with one’s ability to read facial expressions. In other words, those with this infliction can still differentiate a smile from a frown.

Another theory holds that the inability to recognize faces may stem from a relatively low social interest in others and the avoidance of eye contact, which may necessitate looking away from faces and thus not developing a clear memory of their characteristics. If such behaviors begin in childhood, perceptual expertise for remembering facial elements may not evolve.

Many people (and I include myself) have found themselves in an embarrassing situation where they are at a party and they approach someone and introduce themselves to that person and then discover that they had met thirty minutes earlier.

Fortunately for me, once I get to know a person, their face is stamped into my mind and I don’t forget what they look like. If you can't recognize people, you feel like you're socially inept. You're always worrying that people will think you rude or aloof. It can be very embarrassing.

Failure to recognize people one has met before can act as a serious social impediment. A prosopagnosiac may meet someone, have an interesting conversation, and then not recognize that person when that encounters him of her again, which can lead to social embarrassment and anxiety, and make it more difficult to establish friendships. Prosopagnosia is especially problematic in the workplace when the individual is unable to recognize coworkers and bosses.

It is quite conceivable that when Oscar Bartholomew, a Canadian who originally lived in Grenada, bear-hugged a woman police officer he thought he recognized when in fact, he had never met her before. Unfortunately for him, a number of police officers beat him to death when the woman cried out that she was being raped which obviously she wasn’t being raped. Of course, there is another factor to consider. There are many people world wide who look like us. I have seen pictures of people who look like me. Years ago, the Life magazine showed pictures of fifty different men who actually looked exactly like President Eisenhower. It is possible that the woman that Oscar bear-hugged looked like another woman that he knew.

Faces are not processed by the human brain in the same sort of way that other information is. In 1971, the scientists Goldstein and Chance conducted a series of tests in which subjects were shown a number of photographs of women’s faces, magnified snowflakes, and ink blots. Fourteen from each were shown for 3 seconds at a time and following an interval of 48 hours the subjects recall was tested. It was then found that faces were the most easily recalled, this was followed by ink blots, and finally by snowflakes. Thus showing that facial recognition (unlike name recognition) is a key part of human perception.

The fact that we all possess such a specialized region in our brains, which is dedicated to the recognition of faces shows us that facial recognition is essential to being human

Prosopagnosiacs do not easily commit whole faces to memory in the way that most people do. Rather, they must rely on unusual features and other aspects of a person to make an identification until they know the individual very well. In extreme cases, facial recognition can never be achieved, even for family members and close friends, but this is quite rare.

There are various ways that you can recognize people’s faces. Link that image to the individual concerned. To accomplish this, you simply need to pick out the features or characteristics of the individual that stand out the most to you. This could be a dimple on his chin or a freckle on her nose, or even a limp in their left leg. Does he have a mole that is prominent? Are his teeth skewed? Does he have warts all over his face? Does he have a bulbous nose? Does he have a scar on his face? If his face pock-marked from having suffered from Small Pox.

Those with prosopagnosia often rely on hairstyles, clothing, context (i.e., an area of the workplace where the person is most commonly seen), and objects (such as an individual’s car or the glasses he wears) to identify acquaintances. This is a good start, but it creates difficulties when people change hairstyles and colours, adopt different styles of dress, get contact lenses, or appear in a different context. Someone who can be recognized in one place, for example, at work, may be difficult to identify during a chance encounter at the beach.

Previous studies have shown that when humans analyze others they tend to focus only on one part of the face at a time. Scientists believe that our brains take the information they need to identify a person primarily from their eyes. After processing this information the mind then moves onto the mouth and the nose, rather than attempting to gauge a person's face as a whole. Scientists believe that certain facial features give the most reliable signals which set apart one person's face from another's. The study looked at 868 female and 868 male faces to judge how decisions about recognition were made.

In order to remember that a woman whom you have just been introduced to—who happens to have long, red hair—goes by the name of Miss fields. All that you would need to do, would be to simply visualize an image of her, lying in a large, green field, with her long red hair spread out around her head. See it twisting around the long green grass. You might also try exaggerating the length of the hair, in order to emphasize the link between her hair and the field. This is so that when you see her (and her hair) again, you will immediately be reminded of her name ‘Fields.’

To remember that a man that you have just met at a party, is called Mr. Taylor, first pick out his most outstanding feature (say thick eyebrows) and imagine him with eyebrows so long that they reach down to the floor. Imagine him in this amusing predicament, whilst he is in the process of being measured for a new suit by his tailor thus you are linking his most outstanding feature to his name, ‘Taylor.’

To remember the name of a dimpled young lady named Miss Standwick, you could try picturing her face, with a number of large candle wicks standing in her exaggeratedly oversized dimples. Stand wicks – ‘Standwick.’

In order for you to remember a Mr. Hill (who happens to possess a wide forehead), you could imagine the man’s forehead, with a miniature mountain stuck in its centre. You might even like to visualize a large, snowy peak on its top. This is in order to make the image that much more amusing and thus more easy to recollect.

Sometimes people who suffer from a stroke can no longer recognize the faces of people they have known all their lives. My mother suffered from a stroke and she couldn’t recognize anyone she had known for years by the time she was ninety but she recognized my voice as soon as she heard me speaking to her. When Jo Livingston, a retired librarian from Bexley, Kent, was with her grandson in the park one day, a woman sat next to her on the bench. It was only when the woman spoke that Jo realized she was her daughter.

There's a spectrum of prosopagnosia, ranging from people who have a vague awareness of being ‘bad with faces’ to those who have trouble even recognizing themselves in photographs, The celebrated neurologist, Oliver Sacks suffered from problems with facial recognition. He attributed this problem for shyness and social ineptitude. He could recognize members of his immediate family but not recognize members of his extended family. On one occasion, he apologized to a bearded man he bumped into only to realize that he had bumped into a mirror and hadn’t recognized his own face. Now that is prosopagnosia in the extreme. I can’t imagine me forgetting what I look like. I mean, how can anyone forget a handsome face? I see that you recognize a tint of narcissism in me.

Unfortunately, many an innocent person has been convicted of a crime he or she hadn’t committed because people have mistakenly identified them as the criminal that committed the crime. This is why facial ID is recognized as a poor means of determining the guilt or innocence of an accused person.

I once was assaulted by a man and had him charged. When his trial came up, I didn’t recognize him and he was acquitted and rightly so. After that, I began looking for characteristics in people’s faces and that’s when I began remembering faces.

The worst experience I had in a trial was when I was a witness to a hit and run incident. At the trial, two women showed up. They were twins. One of the two women was the driver and as such, she was the accused. How I managed to pick the right one is beyond all understanding but when she giving evidence on the stand, she admitted that she had been the driver.

One day a man I had know for years shaved off his mustache. I didn’t recognize him when he passed by me.

Claire, a mother of four from Peterborough, developed prosopagnosia after contracting viral encephalitis in May 2004. The illness also left her with such severe memory loss that she was unable to return to the nursing career she loved. The 48-year-old said, “Initially, I couldn't define age, gender or even colour from looking at someone's face. I'd look at a dark-skinned gentleman and think he was my husband, Ed. (who is white-skinned).

If you find yourself in the embarrassing position of forgetting the face that you saw an hour ago, tell that person about your problem of remembering faces so that they won't suffer from hurt feelings if you don’t recognize them at that next meeting. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Millions of others are similarly afflicted with the same problem.

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