Mindscapes is a series of articles by Helen Thomson at New Scientist magazine on neuro-psychological topics that often overlap with the kinds of things that I write about here. The latest in the series is an article about Sharon whose condition is developmental topographical disorientation (DTD). For a long time I’ve included within this blog’s large and useful link list a link to a useful researchers’ website about this type of disability or problem because it appears to coincide with prosopagnosia in some people, and extreme variation in face memory ability is one of the main themes of this blog. That researcher’s website is Getting Lost.ca and it is run by people at the NeuroLab which is directed by Dr. Giuseppe Iaria and is located in the Department of Psychology of the University of Calgary. Sharon in this article was diagnosed by Dr Iaria.
Without knowing it, I have already written about the type of experience that Sharon feels when she becomes geographically disoriented (but this is possibly a piece of writing I never published). On the odd occasion I’ve had similar experiences while riding trains in low light conditions or on unfamiliar train lines. For a moment or two I will struggle to make sense of where I am in relation to Perth’s geography, nothing will feel familiar and will feel as though I might have mistakenly got on a train heading in the wrong direction. There is no sensory alteration associated with this kind of brief experience, just the loss of a sense of certainty and a feeling of familiarity. My theory is that this experience is caused by two different systems in the brain (visual and spatial) which both contribute towards navigation going out of sync, disconnecting or one operating in the absence of the other. I believe the basic problem is a loss of a sense of the four directions, or in my case, more specifically a loss of the sense of where the sea is (west). Nothing in navigation makes sense if you don’t know the directions, which is why maps all have a north-pointing arrow (should point west in my opinion). I think Dr Iaria’s team’s idea of a therapy using a belt with tactile stimulation to indicate north is a great idea, but they might want to consider if some “patients” might find some other direction more personally and emotionally meaningful.
I think it is interesting that the researchers have found that people who experience DTD have “decreased communication between two brain areas”. You could call this hypoconnectivity, and this fact fits in neatly with the well-supported theory that prosopagnosia is characterized by hypoconnectivity. At this blog I have put forward the theory that super-recognition, which is elite ability in face memory and the opposite of prosopagnosia, is the result of hyperconnectivity, a theory that is supported by the fact that I’m a super-recognizer and I also experience many different varieties of synaesthesia, a harmless neuro-cognitive variation which a number of research studies have found to be associated with hyperconnectivity. At this blog I have also theorized that there are clusters of interesting neuro-cognitive conditions that could be seen as opposites because they are either characterized by high ability and hyperconnectivity or impaired ability and hypoconnectivity. In the “hyper” camp I place super-recognition, synaesthesia, precocious reading, a heightened visual and spatial sense of place (manifest by walking, outdoor photography and creating navigational computer simulations as favoured pastimes) and giftedness in literacy skills such as reading, spelling and writing (which runs in my family which has included a number of specialist English teachers, a librarian and a university student of literature). In the “hypo” camp I’d place DTD, dyslexia and poor reading fluency and prosopagnosia. My scheme of clusters raises a couple of interesting questions. Is there a condition that is the opposite of synaesthesia? How would it manifest in experiences or behaviour? Might it manifest as an inability to comprehend metaphorical speech or thinking, such as the statements “I’d like to try a sharp cheese” or “What a cheeky little car the Volkswagen Beetle was”. Might it manifest as a lived experience in which colours are not a big thing or a huge pleasure or a distraction? Might it manifest as a calm and logical disposition in which ideas are only thrown together after fully conscious and logical consideration? We must always take into consideration that synaesthesia appears to be a stable and ubiquitous feature of the human race, but synaesthetes are always naturally a minority group. If it is so fantastic being hyperconnected, with good reading skills and top face memory, why hasn’t evolution selected this trait for all or most of humanity? This brings us to the second question that follows from my cluster theory. If a group of disabilities is characterized by hypoconnectivity, and being a “hypo” runs in families (as it does), then why does nature keep giving us “hypo” people? My intuition about evolution and bell curves tells me that there must be either a negative side to being a “hyper” or a positive side to being a “hypo”. Being average and normal must have a lot going for it too I guess. Do “hypo” people have some special gift? Are they good at sport or perhaps unusually calm or focused? Some people believe dyslexia in some way promotes entrepreneurial ability, citing names like Sir Richard Branson and Kerry Packer as examples. More research needed!
An afterthought; synaesthete readers – do you have colours for the four directions? Are they based on the colours of the first letters of the names of the directions, or are they unique colours? Do you experience images for any of the directions?