This interesting recent article explains the many similarities between tone-deafness and face-blindness, and how both conditions can be caused by “structural disconnection” rather than damage to the specific parts of the brain that “do” face recognition or musical perception. The distinction between the developmental and congenital forms of these conditions are explained.
You don’t need to be a genius to see that the “structural disconnection” discussed in this article could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, but just in case that isn’t completely obvious, synaesthesia is mentioned at the very end of the article, in the notes about the author of this article, who is a scientist at Trinity College in Ireland who studies “the genes involved in wiring the brain and their possible involvement in psychiatric disorders and perceptual conditions, including synaesthesia.” Indeed!
A word of caution – I don’t think there is anything in this article that says that prosopagnosics are more likely to be tone-deaf, or vice versa. Although it would seem a sensible assumption that a group of traits should be found together: good face recognition should be found with intact or great or maybe even excellent ability to consciously comprehend musical notes (perfect pitch or absolute pitch), should be found with synaesthesia, but this is not always the case. Apparently there are synaesthetes who are also very poor at face recognition, and the synaesthete author Vladimir Nabokov has been reported by Oliver Sacks to have possibly had “a profound amusia” (Sacks 2007, 2008 p. 109-110), based on a passage that Nabokov wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. I think amusia is a fancy word for tone-deafness. In the book Musicophilia Oliver Sacks describes a number of different types of amusia, and interestingly, this prosopangnosic author also describes in his book some episodes of amusia that he experienced which were a part of the aura of his migraine headaches. There are so many connections here that it’s almost like looking at a plate of spaghetti!
Are people who have perfect pitch better than average at face recognition? Are super-recognizers synaesthetes? Is perfect pitch unusually common in synaesthetes? Are the opposite deficits associated with each other? Get to work, researchers!
Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-tone
Mitchell, K. J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568
Sacks, Oliver Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain. Revised and expanded edition. Picador, 2007, 2008.
Tranel, D. Damasio, A. R. Knowledge without awareness: an autonomic index of facial recognition by prosopagnosics. Science. 1985 Jun 21;228(4706):1453-4. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/228/4706/1453.abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4012303
Postscript 2013 – I’ve had comments from at least one person who is apparently a definite and high-profile super-recognizer to the effect that she is not a synaesthete, so that’s a strike against the idea that supers are synaesthetes. Regardless, I reserve the right to point out that some researchers have found that some study subjects who claim to not have synaesthesia have returned test results that suggest that they are, so it appears to be possible to be a synaesthete and not know it.