Inspiration / Musings

Face blindness, or stumbling across story ideas

Have you ever met someone from work – someone you interact with every day – outside the office, and it took your brain a minute to compute who they were just because you were seeing them in a different context?

I realize it’s not the same, but I listened to one of my favourite podcasts today (Stuff to Blow Your Mind – check it out). This episode was on face blindness (a bit of a misnomer), technically called prosopagnosia.

What is face blindness?

Fusiform gyrus animationFace blindness is a cognitive disorder where a person’s ability to recognize faces is impaired, even those that should be most familiar to them, including their own. From what I understand, people with prosopagnosia can see faces just fine, but they have difficulty recognizing them without some cues. Prosopagnosia comes from the Greek prosopon “face” + agnosia “not knowing”.

Some people with face blindness also suffer from “topographical blindness” – difficulty recognizing landmarks or places, even those they visit every day.

(Okay, I need to make the spinning skull stop.)

Call me curious…I’ve been called worse

So what does this have to do with a writer’s blog? Well, I was in a writing group where one fellow was writing a story where one of the characters had prosopagnosia.  We disbanded before I found out how that turned out.

However, being a scifi and fantasy writer, as I listened to the episode, my curiosity was piqued by the bit about how the area of the brain implicated in this disorder – the fusiform gyrus, or fusiform face area (I just like to say that, and prosopagnosia) – also lights up when an expert in a thing looks at that thing. For example, if most people look at a bug, we see a bee; we don’t see a sweat bee versus a mason bee. However, if you’re a bee specialist, you’re fusiform face lights up and you can say, well, it’s not either of those…it’s a leafcutter bee.

Which makes sense, in a way. The one thing those of us born with average visual acuity are experts in from a very young age is human faces. Being a scifi and fantasy author, my question at the end of the episode was…what if you have a species that doesn’t navigate their world visually. Maybe hearing or smell are their primary means of identification and recognition. Could an individual in that society have auditory-agnosia or olfactory-agnosia, and what would that mean to them?

Well, that’s all for my Saturday morning ramblings. Oh, except, one other interesting tidbit I came across is that the same area of the brain is implicated in things such as autism, dyslexia and synesthesia. There was one really intriguing study of teens with autism whose facial recognition areas lit up looking at faces of animals, but not humans. Again, I could only read the abstract, being a scholarly paper I don’t have access to.

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