Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I've read plenty of Oliver Sacks, both his books and articles in The New Yorker. I saw Peter Brooks' theatre piece based on "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat"; I've even seen Sacks himself, at the French Roast on the Upper West Side.
But his latest New Yorker article ( A Neurologist's Notebook: Face-Blind- The Perils of Prosopagnosia) struck me in a different way. It's about people who have a difficult time recognizing faces; from those who have difficulty recognizing them out of context, to those who can't recognize family members or every day landmarks. In extreme cases, this behavior manifests itself as brain lesions. Sacks outs himself as having a lesser but still significant form of it, developmental (or congenital) prosopagnosia. The rumors that swirled around Sacks for years because of his behavior in public (he has Aspergers, he has social anxiety, etc.) are not true. It's the difficulty he has in processing visual information (something the rest of us take for granted) that makes him appear to have these problems.
The further Sacks delved into the variations of face-blind-ness (it has its flip side: Sacks believes his father had the opposite condition, that he was a "super recognizer), the more it seemed very familiar to me. I have always had problems recognizing people by their faces if they are out of their usual context; I remember this at least as far back as high school. I always ascribed that to poor memory or too much self-involvement on my part. It never happens with close friends or family, and it never happens if the setting is appropriate. But it's happened to me twice this summer, seeing people I work with in setting where I didn't expect them.
Last week, I read an interview with Edward Albee where he described how his characters take shape in his mind, and he mentioned that he can't see their faces. I got to think that while I'm writing, I can see the characters three-dimensionally, seeing them moving through space (either in an environment or on a stage), hear their voices and know their thoughts, I can never see their faces. They are a blurred-out gray, like a wash on newsprint.
The link above is to an abstract of Sacks' article.

1 comment:

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