Listening to Heather Sellers’ autobiography

I’ve been listening to the interesting autobiography by prosopagnosic Heather Sellers, titled You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, in a compact disc format. I had wanted to borrow the book from the public library, but for some reason or another they decided to order it in a spoken word form. Perhaps they thought that face-blindness is a sub-set of ordinary blindness, and the readers who would be interested in the autobiography would have visual impairments or dyslexia. Actually, I’d like to know if there is any link between dyslexia and prosopagnosia, but I know for sure that there are plenty of prosopagnosics who do not report any issues with vision or reading at all.

I’ll admit that I haven’t found the time to listen to all nine discs. The content of disc number seven was particularly of interest to me, covering Ms Sellers’ discovery of her own prosopagnosia, the dreadful way that she was treated during the process of getting professionally diagnosed, in the time when prosopagnosia was thought of as a rare effect of stroke affecting mostly middle-aged men, and speculation about any possible link between her prosopagnosia and her mother’s mental illness. Some useful resources that Ms Sellers wrote about discovering were an academic reserch book by Andrew W. Young and the website, which is still a very important resource about prosopagnosia. Ms Sellers contacted the face recognition researcher Brad Duchaine and also discovered an online community of prosopagnosics, mostly developmental cases who often saw prosopagnosia in family members, and some acting in the role of disability activist. Different approaches to disclosing prosopagnosia as a disability are touched upon. It’s interesting stuff for sure, and I thank Ms Sellers for sharing her story.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that as I listened to the CDs of Ms Sellers’ autobiography, as visual illustration of the story in my mind’s eye, my mind automatically retrieved some old visual memories from my past in Perth, Western Australia as settings for the story, even though they were probably not a close fit to the real settings of the real events described by the author Sellers from the US. For scenes set in the university in which Sellers was a student, my mind used my visual memories of the Joondalup Campus of the Edith Curtin University, specifically the lunch bar area next to a stairway. For scenes of the story that were set in residential areas my mind used old memories of old and run-down unrenovated two-story blocks of flats in Subiaco (which have probably been fixed up or demolished by now), and for interior shots of the author’s university residence my mind came up with some imagined spaces. Perhaps this effortless, involuntary and unconscious visualization while listening to a story is completely typical of the way all people listen to stories. Whether it is or not, it shows how visual memories are involuntarily and centrally involved with thinking processes that aren’t explicitly remembering or memory-related. Visual memory is not just a isolated function summoned up when we want to remember what something looked like. Visual memory is in the guts of cognition, it is more than a record of past sensory experiences, and this is why I am not surprised that visual memories come up so often (in my own experience) as synaesthesia inducers and concurrents associated with other cognitive functions that appear to have little relation with visual memory, such as fine-motor learned skills and thinking about very abstract concepts. The automatic use of visual memories when I am thinking about a story that I’m listening to shows that visual memory is not just a narrow function of the mind, and I think it also shows that there is little point in trying to make a distinction between memory and imagination, as both appear to be functions that are beyond conscious control, at least in some situations.

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