Tag Archives: Agnosia For Scenes

I’ve just discovered a resource for people who have an isolated problem of getting lost or inability to orient in their physical environment

While I was looking at online resources for people who have prosopagnosia, or a disability in recognizing faces, I came across what looks like an important resource for people who have another isolated disability which is sometimes associated with prosopagnosia,  an inability to orient in a physical environment. The title of this website is “Developmental topographical disorientation: a lifelong condition”. The term “developmental” denotes that this is a condition that those affected naturally and probably genetically are destined to develop. Most developmental brain-based conditions manifest in early childhood. Prosopagnosia, synaesthesia and autism are some examples of neurodevelopmental conditions. I guess there is probably an acquired, non-developmental version of this disorientation condition that can be caused by brain damage or stroke. I also guess that developmental topographical disorientation would be a different condition to the type of disorientation that results from altered states of consciousness or from an acquired type of visual agnosia that results from dementia or Benson’s syndrome. The website that I’ve discovered appears to be run by two highly qualified academics and researchers who work in universities in Canada who appear to be experts in this condition: Assistant Professor Giuseppe Iaria and Professor Jason J S Barton.

I think developmental topographical disorientation would have to be the same type of problem that the famous neurologist, writer and prosopagnosic Dr Oliver Sacks experiences and has written about in his book The Mind’s Eye and in his interesting article about prosopagnosia which was published in the New Yorker magazine. The scientific study of this type of problem is clearly in it’s infancy, and one problem that is often a feature of new areas of academic inquiry is a lack of standardization of the terminology. I’m really not sure which is the proper term for this orientation problem, or whether there are genuinely different varieties of this problem which have their own terms. Iaria and Barton use the term “developmental topographical disorientation”, Sacks used the term “topographical agnosia” and Sacks wrote that Dr D. Frank Benson, who was the first person to formally describe Benson’s syndrome or posterior cortical atrophy used the term “environmental agnosia” to describe patients who get lost in their own neighbourhoods or homes, and I’ve come across the term “agnosia for scenes” which seems to be the same type of thing. I’ve read about people who can’t recognize landcapes or scenes, and also people who can’t recognize specific landmarks, which seem to be different visual disabilities. It’s all very confusing, and I hope some clarity and standardization in this area of research will become clear, for the sake of the people who experience these issues.

I’m interested in this stuff not because I have any problems in orienting, but because I experience one type of synaesthesia in which visual memories of scenes of landscapes, some of them very old memories, are the “concurrents” or additional synaesthesia experiences triggered by thinking about specific concepts or performing very specific fine-motor household chores. I have fully described these types of synaesthesia experiences, which to my knowledge have never before been scientifically described, in a number of different posts at this blog (click on the applicable tags to find them). My guess is that my ability to orient using memories of scenes should be superior, or the opposite of topographical disorientation for a number of reasons. There seems to be a link between prosopagnosia and topographical disorientation, and I’m the opposite of a prosopagnosic in that I’ve attained some perfect scores in some tests of face recognition and thus could be a super-recognizer, and so if face and scene recognition are linked I should also have great scene recognition. I also have synaesthesia that involves visual memories of scenes, and according to research about syneasthesia, superior ability is often found in synaesthetes in the cognitive functions which are involved with their synesthesia. I also believe that an awareness of scenes and a sense of place has an unusual prominence in the way that I think and experience life. This website that I’ve just discovered links to some tests of orientation ability, so I hope I will be able to find some more spare time to have a go at these tests to see whether my prediction about my ability in this area might be true.

One last comment about the Developmental topographical disorientation website; I wonder if it is only a coincidence that two of the artworks displayed at this website, which both illustrate the concept of spatial landscapes and orienting, are the creations of two synaesthete artists – David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh? I wonder, do synaesthete artists display a more developed sense of space and place? How could one research this question in an objective manner? And what kind of art would people who have topographical disorientation create? Could this condition be diagnosed through art or drawing tests?

Developmental topographical disorientation: a lifelong condition    http://www.gettinglost.ca/Home.html

Reading in the brain and spotting things in the wild

I wish I had more time to write about the really interesting book Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention by Stanislas Dehaene. It isn’t a new book, I believe it came out in 2009, but if you are interested in reading as a cognitive ability, or have an interest in dyslexia or are generally interested in the workings of the brain, I would recommend this book. I believe the author is an important researcher, and thus is highly qualified to write this book, which sets him apart from many other authors of popular science and popular psychology books. Dehaene identifies and solves the great mystery of reading. According to my understanding of this book,  reading is generally processed in the same parts of the brain for all readers, so it appears that these parts of the brain have evolved to be specialized for reading. But this is not possible – humans have only had writing symbols and reading for a very recent time in the history of our species. Dehaene solves this mystery, and you can read about this solution in this book.

I especially like this book because within it I have found the answers to a number of mysteries that I have been wondering about for a long time. Is there a link between the synaesthesia and the above-average reading abilities of some members of my family? It appears that the answer is “yes”. Brain hyperconnectivity is the best explanation of the physical basis of synaesthesia, and Dehaene explains in his book  that “a “bushy” vision of the brain, with several functions that operate in parallel, has replaced the early serial model” of how the brain operates, and this bushy model is very applicable to reading. Synaesthetes have brains that are bushy, at least in some regions, and reading requires a bushy brain. We should therefore not be surprised if at least some types of synaesthesia  (there are certainly different types) are associated with superior or precocious reading ability. The descriptions of research on the visual processing of objects and faces in monkeys that can be found in chapter three of the book are particularly interesting to me because they seem to be a description of the neural basis of some unusual aspects of The Strange Phenomenon, the great mystery that inspired me to start this blog.

In this book I found striking pictorial explanation of why there seems to be a link between reading ability and face reading ability in our family. When I saw in Figure 2.6 of that book on page 74 the way that the regions in the underside of the brain that are specialized to detect objects, written words, faces and “houses” are situated right next-door to each other and overlap, I was pretty amazed and knew this explained a lot about the abilities of myself and some of my kin. We must have an unusual level of development in this region, which I guess must be the fusiform gyrus, but isn’t given a label in the book. This overlap of brain areas specialized for faces and “houses” would explain why prosopagnosia and agnosia for scenes appear to be often found together. I believe that it also indicates that there could be a link between reading ability and face recognition ability, at least in some people. At the website for this book this figure is labelled as Figure 2.1 and can be viewed here: http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/img/small/Diapositive12.jpg

This is a quote from the caption to Figure 2.6: “Reading always activates an area located between the peak responses to faces and to objects”. I think this would explain why we have advanced readers and also a person who is unusually good at reading and recognizing faces in our family. I think it also could explain some of our childhood hobbies. When I was a child I had one of those hobbies that involves spotting, inspecting, evaluating and collecting found objects from natural environments. This was a highly visual hobby (and also quite tactile), and it was a wonderful thing because it was a pathway towards a great love of nature and a fascination with science and biology. It was also good for fresh air, sunshine and exercise, things that the lifestyles of kids seem to lack these days. One of our kids also had a keen childhood hobby that also involved an element of seeing and identifying different types of objects within the same category. The difference was that these objects were technological, not natural, and are way too big and expensive to collect. All the same, it could be described as a “spotting” hobby, like trainspotting, birdspotting etc. There is a link between “spotting” type hobbies or skills and face recognition, because both face recognition and “within-category identification” are done in the fusiform gyrus. I’m not sure where it was that I read that some study found that car salesmen were found to use the same part of the brain as is used for face recognition when they were given the task of identifying motor vehicles, an area of professional expertise for this group.

Why do people have “spotting” hobbies that are not directly useful? Why has natural selection resulted in people who like to do apparently useless actvities such as looking at trains or collecting shells? It isn’t too hard to think of an explanation in terms of evolutionary adaptations. The ability to visually spot, identify and pursue or avoid objects (animals, vegetable foodstuffs) in natural environments was probably one of the most essential skills that a caveman/cavelady could have had, to find food and to avoid being food for some larger animal. It would be a big ask to expect that modern humans should completely break this habit that has most certainly been highly selected for in the human gene pool.

Today just out of curiosity I picked a few berries off a Rhagodia baccata plant during my morning walk (I like to know the proper scientific names of certain categories of things), and the berries tasted truly dreadful, but a bit sweet. The taste was almost as horrible as the taste of the native quandong fruit, which is regarded by some as a type of food. I’m certainly glad that I don’t have to rely on my prehistoric food-gathering skills.

References

Dehaene, Stanislas Reading in the Brain: the science and evolution of a human invention. Viking, 2009. http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/intro.htm 

Full-colour figures from this wonderful book: http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/figures.htm

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_gyrus&oldid=419089814

Involuntary Method of Loci Memorization (IMLM) – what the heck is that?

A note of warning – If you are thinking about copying or plagiarizing any of the text, ideas or descriptions in this post and using it is your own work without giving me (C. Wright, author of the blog “Am I a super-recognizer?”) the proper acknowledgement and citations, then think again. If you do that you will be found out and you will regret it. If you want to make reference to this post or any of the ideas in it make sure that you state in your work exactly where you first read about these ideas. If you wish to quote any text from this post be sure to cite this post at this blog properly. There are many established citation methods. If you quote or make reference to material in this blog in your work, it would be a common courtesy to let me know about your work (I’m interested!) in a comment on any of the posts in this blog. Thank you.

I am not sure if this visual-spatial-memory related experience, which I and at least two of my first-degree relatives experience often, has already been described publicly in an anecdote or in a more scientific or formal discourse. I only know that I have never read or heard a description of this experience that wasn’t first prompted by my explaining it to someone else. Maybe it is such a common thing that it isn’t thought worth mentioning. This is the attitude toward this experience that is held by one of my two relatives who has this experience. In light of the fact that these relatives and I are all synaesthetes, and synaesthetes are thought to have unusual memory abilities, and this experience appears to be an involuntary subtype of the method of loci memorization technique, an ancient memory technique that was thought to have been used by neuropsychologist Alexander Luria’s famous case “S”, who was described in Luria’s book The mind of a mnemonist , who was also a synaesthete and had arguably the most amazing memory known to science, I think this experience might be of some scientific interest, and I think it is worth spending some time describing it.

Before attempting to explain what involuntary method of loci memorization is, it makes sense to explain what the method of loci is. I’m happy to outsource this task to the Wikipedia:

“The method of loci…, also called the memory palace, is a general designation for mnemonic techniques that rely on memorised spatial relationships to establish, order and recollect memorial content…. The method of loci is also commonly called the mental walk. In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information. Many memory contest champions claim to use this technique in order to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. These champions’ successes have little to do with brain structure or intelligence, but more to do with their technique of using regions of their brain that have to do with spatial learning. Those parts of the brain that contribute most significantly to this technique include the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex, and the right posterior hippocampus.”

I have never deliberately tried to use this technique myself, but I believe it can be applied to the task of memorizing a set sequence of distinct items. I don’t think it is applied to complex concepts. One either imagines visually in the mind’s eye, or one visits and sees, a familiar walking route. One then imagines each item to be memorized, in order, at various landmarks and locations along the walk. If the items are not the type of thing normally visualised, they must be mentally converted into a visual form. For example, a name to be memorized could be converted into a visual image of a thing that the name brings to mind. To recall this list of items one needs to imagine walking along that route, and apparently in the mind’s eye each item will be encountered on the imaginary journey and recalled. I guess this might be the origin of the saying “a walk down memory lane”.

There are a number of ways in which involuntary method of loci memorization (IMLM) is different to method of loci, but I think the similarities are interesting and indicate the use of similar or the same neurological machinery. Rather than thinking of IMLM as an accidental version of method of loci memory technique, perhaps it is more suitable to regard the method of loci technique as a method of “taming” and using the process involved in IMLM. As is a familiar theme to anyone who has been interested enough to read my blog, I believe this is a type of synaesthesia or has central elements in common with synaesthesia.

How does IMLM work? The basis of this memory phenomenon is the long-term incidental/accidental formation of a stable neurological association between the visual image of the scene of the exact location where one is at and information absorbed through interested, attentive reading or through interested, attentive listening at a time when one was present at and looking at that exact location. If one revisits that exact location and looks at exactly the same scene, the memory of the information absorbed at that location is automatically and involuntarily recalled. There does not need to be any logical link between the place or scene and the concept. Recall of the concept can happen years later when the place is revisited. As I have not made any serious attempt to record this phenomenon I do not know exactly how long these associations can last. The form in which the information is recalled is in conceptual form – I do not “hear” in my mind’s ear the sound of the original radio broadcast, and I do not “read” in my mind’s eye information read at that location. I just remember the gist of what was learned at that location. This is one way in which this phenomenon is different from the method of loci. In the method of loci both the trigger (seeing or visualizing the scenery of the walk) and the experiences evoked (visualizing the items memorized) are visual. In the IMLM the trigger is visual (a scene) but the experience evoked is a concept, not visual, at least that has been the way I experience it.

One could simply call this scene->concept synaesthesia, and interestingly, I have described at this blog concept->scene synaesthesia, and unusual variations, which I also experience, and at this blog other people from around the world have described similar concept->scene synaesthesia experiences. Clearly, at least in some brains, there are very active physical connections between the part of the brain that “does” visualisation of memories of scenes (fusiform gyrus?) and the part of the brain that “does” abstract conceptual thinking, whatever that part might be. I have never before read of any such thing being described in the literature on synaesthesia. I choose to not simply call the IMLM phenonenon “scene->concept synaesthesia” because this differs from classic synaesthesia in a number of important ways. Unlike other known types of synaesthesia, the events that formed the synaesthesia-like connections can be remembered by me and they are similar scenarios. Unlike the apparent origins of many well-studied types of synaesthesia (such as grapheme->colour synaesthesia, which I and relatives also experience), the events that formed these connection did not happen in early childhood, and new instances of this type of synaesthesia could easily be deliberately created, and possibly exploited as a mnemonic device. To contrast IMLM and my synaesthesias that connect scenes and concepts with the more classic forms of synaesthesia such as number form synaesthesia and grapheme->colour synaesthesia, the classic types could be described as “developmental” because they form in early childhood, most likely as the result of natural but atypical brain maturation processes, and they are permanent, but my IMLM and related synaesthesias can form in adulthood, can be manipulated and created, and while these connections are generally very long-lasting, I’m not completely sure that they are as unchanging as the classic synaesthesias. IMLM is not a type of “developmental” synaesthesia – I would instead describe it as an unusual ability that the synaesthete brain is possibly especially capable at doing at any age. It could very well be useful if one wanted to learn some type of savant memory party trick.

I can’t be completely sure that my experiences are identical to those of my synaesthete close relatives. I am trying to clarify with one of my close relatives whether the evoked experience is for them always conceptual. This relative has described an instance of this phenomenon in which a specific scene of some very large, shady trees at Liddell Park at Girrawheen on Wanneroo Road involuntarily evokes the memory of the song “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. We are not sure if it is the sound or the concept of this song that is evoked. A characteristic of this phenomenon is that, unless one thinks about specific instances a lot, it happens unexpectedly and is easily forgotten. It is like a thought that flashes through the mind and vanishes as fast as it appeared. This is why it can be tricky to record and easy to overlook.

I believe that IMLM and my other synaesthesia and synaesthesia-like experiences that involve concepts, faces and scenes, experiences such as my concept->scene synaesthesia, fine motor task->scene synaesthesia, The Strange Phenomenon and IMLM, are especially interesting because they are essentially synaesthesia, but they also appear to violate one of the basic criteria for identifying synaesthesia in a set of criteria that has had a lot of scientific influence for many years. The pioneer of 20th century synaesthesia research in the US, Dr Richard Cytowic, formulated a set of criteria for synaesthesia during his pioneering investigations into the neurological phenomenon. I believe that a driving motivation of Cytowic’s at the time might have been to outline the many differences between synaesthesia and psychosis-type experiences. Cytowic’s criteria number three for synaesthesia is thus: “Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).” The faces, scenes and abstract concepts that I experience during some types of synaesthesia are most definitely not generic and simple rather than pictorial. I believe it was years after Cytowic’s work that the UK synaesthesia researcher Dr Julia Simner wrote a paper or papers arguing for the conceptual nature of some types of synaesthesia, and arguing against the notion that synaesthesia is a purely simple and sensory experience (“mixed-up senses”). She was focusing on types of synaesthesia that involve simple learned concepts, such as numbers and letters and months of the year, in types of synaesthesia such as grapheme->colour synaesthesia, number form synaesthesia and sequence-space synaesthesia. The history of synaesthesia research goes back centuries, and the definition of synaesthesia is still evolving. I believe that my experiences, and those of oher people that are described at this blog, should be taken into account in the ongoing scientific exploration of synaesthesia.

Back to the subject at hand! How does the IMLM phenomenon typically happen? A common scenario that brings about this phenomenon is me sitting in a parked car while listening to an informational radio show, news radio broadcasts and Radio National being favourite listening of mine. Sometimes this happens when I am waiting for others to run some errand, and sometimes I’m sitting in the car listening to the end of some radio item that has caught my interest, before getting out and going shopping or whatever. I have considered naming this phenomenon car-park -> Radio National synaesthesia, but I think to call it just another type of synaesthesia is an oversimplification, and it also happens in slightly different scenarios. As with all types of synesthesia, the trigger and the evoked experience are both very specific. It is so specific that it can be localised to within just a couple of car-park spaces. In the car-park of one shopping centre that I often visit, many different areas of that car-park evoke their own specific memories of the thing that I learned about while parked at that space.  This same car-park phenomenon can happen when I sit in a parked car reading a book while stopping to gaze at the surrounds. I will recall what I read about in the book when I was parked there if I return to that parking space, or a space no more than a few spaces away, again years later and look at the scene.

Scenes can change, and I guess this would nullify this phenomenon, but I’m not sure. Perhaps the sense of one’s geographical place rather than vision of scenery can act as a trigger. I’m not sure. This phenomenon can form while one is travelling as a passenger gazing out the window of a vehicle that has stopped temporarily at lights or a traffic jam, while listening to the radio. The concept memorized needs to be reasonably interesting to the listener. It can be something shocking like a fictional description of sexual abuse, or news of a deadly natural disaster happening, but it doesn’t have to evoke extreme emotions. Odd, obscure ideas and facts can be memorized, but it must hold some interest to the person.

I am sure that weak, fuzzy and common forms of this phenomenon are commonplace. We all recall memories of times past when we revisit places where scenes of our lives have taken place, don’t we? I often like to revisit places that hold happy memories from my past, so that in going there I can gain good access to those memories. I guess other people do the same? We all habitually return to places that we have previously enjoyed being at, and avoid places that were the setting of unpleasant times. This makes sense psychologically, and this type of behaviour makes sense within the context of evolutionary adaptations.

I guess there are some people who have little opportunity to experience IMLM. If a person doesn’t ever listen to talk radio while in a vehicle or never reads information in places where they can also see scenery, they may never have the chance to experience it. Perhaps IMLM is a very common experience for people who habitually listen to talk radio or spoken books on long road or rail journeys, or while working as a long distance truck driver. In fact I know a long-distance truck driver who has described to me privately an experience that sounds a lot like IMLM.

Many questions are raised during consideration of IMLM and the method of loci. An obvious one is whether people who have agnosia for scenes completely miss out on this phenomenon. Perhaps it depends on the exact nature of the cause of their agnosia (damage or disconnection?) What is the relationship between synaesthesia and method of loci? Do synaesthetes have some type of natural advantage in using it? Any particular type of synaesthetes? Luria’s “S”, a multi-synaesthete and a grapheme -> colour synaesthete, reportedly used the method of loci (Wilding & Valentine 1997), and three grapheme -> colour synaesthetes (my family members and I) experience IMLM, a phenomenon which appears to be closely related to the method of loci.

Which parts of the brain are involved in IMLM? Visual memories of scenes are an essential element of both the method of loci and IMLM. Visual memories of scenes are also a recurring theme within the descriptions of my unusual neurological experiences that I have written at my blog. I believe the fusiform gyrus is the part of the brain that processes this type of information. I have given many arguments in my blog, regarding different types of synaesthesia that I experience, asserting that my fusiform gyrus is unusual and in some ways superior in function. This all appears to suggest that the fusiform gyrus is involved in the method of loci.

How can knowledge of these memory phenomena and techniques be applied to improving learning and the use of memory? Could a regime of listening to sound recordings of information to be absorbed while travelling along a route be an effective learning technique? How could this memorized information be later recalled? Could there an advantage to travelling to school, university or work in a long journey with lots of opportunities for viewing scenes? There is no end to the neurological phenomena that I hope to find the time to describe, and one of those phenomena is the one in which driving or travelling in a vehicle appears to unlock my memory, my ability to link concepts and to generate new ideas like nothing else can.

What are the limitations and the advantages of the use of the method of loci and IMLM memory phenomena? The method of loci has the disadvantage that the retrieval of information encoded using the method is inflexible. It relies on being at a specific geographical location or imagining a specific location for it to work. IMLM is just as specific and inflexible, and is also very fast and fickle, but it can be “tamed” by consciously reflecting on it, in a similar way as the application of the method of loci technique. I have found that once one is aware of the associations between scenes and concepts, one can think of the scene and then recall the concept. I have found that there are instances in which this works in reverse – thinking about a concept evokes a memory of a scene. It is far from clear how the conscious manipulation of IMLM might provide any advantage over simply reading stuff and thinking about stuff. Figuring out how to exploit this thing is probably a job for someone else. The first step is describing the phenomenon, which is what I’ve done here.

Some examples of spontaneous IMLM experiences that have happened:

-being at a specific place in a carpark at Warwick Shopping Centre evoking a memory of a rather hard-to-believe description of a sexually exploitative situation in the book Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, which I read months before when waiting in a parked car in that specific area

-the example given in the text of this article experienced by a close relative of mine involving a park in Girrawheen

-the concept of The Book Depository and the decline of non-internet book retailers evoked when parking at a particular spot at the Dog Swamp Shopping Centre, where I was parked months before when I listened to a story on The Book Show on Radio National about The Book Depository, and it was the first time I’d heard of the business.

-the concept of raising a transgender child in a genuinely sympathetic manner in spite of ignorant people evoked by parking in a particular spot next to a kindergarten, where months before I’d listened to an interesting story on this subject on the car radio after droppng young child off.

-there are many more examples, most involving carpark spaces and talk radio shows

References

Cytowic, Richard E. Synesthesia: a union of the senses. Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Luria, Alexander The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. Penguin, 1975. http://www.scribd.com/doc/12983496/Alexander-Luria-The-Mind-of-a-Mnemonist

Simner, Julia Beyond perception: synaesthesia as a psycholinguistic phenomenon. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(1), 23-29.

Wikipedia contributors Method of loci. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Method_of_loci&oldid=416232189

Wilding, John M. and Valentine, Elizabeth R. Superior memory. Psychology Press, 1997. http://books.google.com.au/books?id=lBHYHgpxDEkC&dq=wilding+valentine+1997&source=gbs_navlinks_s

I’ve been reading Oliver Sacks’ new book The Mind’s Eye

After I read much of Oliver Sacks’ previous book about the mind and music Musicophilia, which has within it a very good chapter about synaesthesia, I expected that Sacks’ newest book would certainly be worth a look. The Mind’s Eye is about the processing of vision in the brain and visual disorders/disabilities, so it is exactly the right Oliver Sacks book for the moment for me, as I have recently stumbled into a keen interest in matters of the brain and visual images. For a period of over a year I have been experiencing a strange visual/memory phenomenon, which I have named “the strange phenomenon”, and although I have consulted academics, university researchers and experts from all around the world for an opinion on this (without divulging the identities of the people whose faces are involved with the strange phenomenon), as is often the case, I have been left to figure it out myself, which hasn’t been all that bad because this has been a very interesting period of discovery and I’ve always had a keen interest in the life sciences.

The Mind’s Eye is a book that has lived up to my expectations. It has a chapter about a case of Benson’s syndrome (Sacks favours the alternative term for it “posterior cortical atrophy” or PCA). As I have already explained in this blog, in my family there seems to be a gene that gives people a profile of superior abilities that could be described as the opposite of Benson’s syndrome. Benson’s syndrome is degenerative disease that can have as its first symptom the loss of the ability to read.

The book also has a chapter about prosopagnosia (face-blindness) which is an extended version of the interesting magazine article “Face-Blind” that Sacks wrote for New Yorker magazine on this subject. Sacks described his own quite severe inherited developmental prosopagnosia which is accompanied with agnosia for scenes (Sacks favours the alternative term for this “topographical agnosia”). This chapter also mentions super-recognizers. I was quite struck by descriptions in this book of the many ways in which people, including psychiatrists, have misunderstood and misinterpreted the effects of prosopagnosia. Sacks exposes an unpardonable level of ignorance of this disability among medical professionals.

I’ve enjoyed this book, and I’d recommend it to others.

Does The Strange Phenomenon have implications for scientific understanding of object recognition and face recognition?

All around our house I have half-read copies of New Scientist magazine lying about, some months old. I had put aside an August issue because there was a story in it about visual disorders that looked like it could have been interesting. I’ve recently found the time to read it, and I’ve read it again with my brain fully switched on, and it looks as though there is an interesting relationship between The Strange Phenomenon, a face-recognition related thing that I’ve described in the first post of this blog, and two competing scientific theories about object recognition. I’m no scientist, but from what I can grasp from the science magazine article, there is one theory about visual object recognition that “we flick through a mental catalogue of objects we have seen before-and preferably, a view of these objects from every vantage point-to try to find a best fit with the current image.” I think The Strange Phenomenon indicates that face recognition works in this way, at least in my brain. The Strange Phenomenon certainly, definitely seems to work on memories of faces that are like two-dimensional photographs rather than three-dimensional models of objects. The New Scientist article reports a study by researcher Marlene Behrmann from Carnegie Mellon University in the US that is consistent with a competing theory about object recognition, that it works by memorizing objects as constructions of generic building blocks, rather than storing memories of objects as “pictures” or “scenes”.

So, does this all put together indicate that face recognition works very differently than object recognition? Does face recognition work like one theory of object recognition, while object recognition actually works like the other theory? Do our brain modules specialized for object recognition and for face recognition work very differently? Is this why prosopagnosia can be a very specific disability?  I’m just an educated housewife interpreting a report in a science magazine, so if you really want to know if this is a sensible interpretation of the research and the current theories of how our visual systems work, I strongly recommend that you go ask a person who actually works in a university.

It’s a pity the article discussed is behind a paywall on the New Scientist website.

Robson, David Seeing isn’t believing. New Scientist. August 28th 2010. Volume 207 Number 2775 p.30-33.

Online version:

Robson, David The mind’s eye: How the brain sorts out what you see. New Scientist. August 30th 2010.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727751.200-the-minds-eye-how-the-brain-sorts-out-what-you-see.html

Pretty as a landscape

I’ve just been having a quick look at the abstract of a journal paper about agnosia for scenes, which is apparently an inability to recognize and learn scenes lacking salient landmarks. It seems to be related to prosopagnosia, which is an inability to recognize faces. The link between these disabilities is easily understood when one thinks with one’s mind’s eye. A face is like a landscape. Have you ever heard of the term “pretty as a picture”? One could take that literally. Some noses are hills, and others are more like mountains. Some people have noses like a great dividing range, a great long thing continuous with the brow.

If there really is a close relationship between prosopagnosia and agnosia for scenes, then it seems clear that agnosia for scenes is not much to do with landmarks. It is surely about the whole picture, the entire landscape, a thing that wraps around one, a reality that one can almost feel through one’s back and upper arms. I’m sure there is something unusual about the way I percieve faces and the way I experience scenes. I believe I enjoy “encoding” both types of things more than most people. When I am a tourist it is all about discovering new vistas, experiencing and remembering new places. I am the ultimate rubberneck, and I don’t much care if it looks a bit odd or a bit unsophisticated. When I visit a home that I have never seen before, I can’t help looking around a lot, even though I have little interest in interior decoration. If your home has the same floorplan as another home that I’ve been inside, it won’t take long for me to detect that.

My memory for places does have limits. In case you are wondering if I am a savant who can draw incredibly detailed scenes from memory, like Stephen Wiltshire and other autistic savants, you will be disappionted. I think I was pretty good at art when I was a high school student. My art teacher seemed to take a special interest in my work, even though I was never the star of the class. I tried to draw what I actually saw, which other students didn’t seem to be doing much, and I tried to be a bit original, but I wasn’t a human camera, and art has never been a major interest of mine.

Mendez, MF, Cherrier, MM Agnosia for scenes in topographagnosia. Neuropsychologia. 2003;41(10):1387-95. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12757910

The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome?

 

A note of warning – If you are thinking about copying or plagiarizing any of the text, ideas or descriptions in this post and using it is your own work without giving me (C. Wright, author of the blog “Am I a Super-recognizer?”) the proper acknowledgement and citations, then think again. If you do that you will be found out and you will regret it. If you want to make reference to this post or any of the ideas in it make sure that you state in your work exactly where you first read about these ideas. If you wish to quote any text from this post be sure to cite this post at this blog properly. There are many established citation methods. If you quote or make reference to material in this blog in your work, it would be a common courtesy to let me know about your work (I’m interested!) in a comment on any of the posts in this blog. Thank you.

 

Today I had a look through someone else’s copy of today’s West during an idle moment. It’s not much of a newspaper, but one never knows what one might discover in a paper.  On page three I saw a sad but interesting story about the retired principal of a top private school in Perth who has had to cut short her career due to a rare type of dementia, early onset Benson’s syndrome. This is like Alzheimer’s except that it affects specific parts of the brain, and it takes away the ability of the brain to process visual information, among other things. Some of the first symptoms of this disease noticed by Dr Glenda Parkin were an inability to play a card game, an inability to spell and an inability to write notes. This terrible disease robs people of basic visual, literacy and numeracy skills such as reading, spelling, handling money and recognizing familiar objects. Why did I find this particularly interesting, aside from the sadness and the personal courage in the story? Because this disease seemed to be the opposite of the special intellectual gifts that run in our family. We have kids who were early and advanced readers, consistently testing as years ahead of their age peers in reading ability. One of our kids spells effortlessly, tackling long foreign words in their junior primary school years, and picking up a bit of Polish just for fun. I am able to write pieces like this without needing to use a spellchecker. I suspect that this ease in literacy skills is linked with our shared and obviously inherited grapheme-colour synaesthesia, the same variety of synaesthesia that ran in the family of the respected novelist Vladimir Nabokov. I suspect that, like some other synaesthetes, I have a memory for colour that is above average. I can recall the exact colours and the names of the colours of a watercolour set that I was given as a young child. I am also often puzzled by the labels that other people give to colours, which don’t seem even vaguely accurate to me. I know that I have unusually good face recognition abilities because I got a perfect score in the short form of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, which is I believe the state-of-the-art in facial recognition tests. The natural reading skill in our family could be seen as the opposite of the loss of ability to read which is an early symptom of Bensons syndrome or PCA.

Although the story in The West Australian about Dr Glenda Parkin’s battle with Benson’s syndrome did not mention anything about recognizing faces or body language, I was willing to bet that prosopagnosia is one of the symptoms of Benson’s that wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper article. I was curious to find out more about Benson’s syndrome for two reasons – to check if face recognition is indeed affected by it as I predicted, and to also find out which specific parts of the brain are affected by Benson’s, because I thought this would be a good clue about which parts of my brain, and the brains of my blood relatives, are naturally enhanced or over-developed or hyper-connected. I would also discover another fact that shows how different elements of different types of synaesthesia that I experience are connected. I find that if you follow the clues far enough, you will often find that things are connected, especially when you are investigating synaesthesia. I already had a few clues about which parts of my brain are different and give rise to my face recognition abilities and The Strange Phenomenon. The fusiform face area, within the fusiform gyrus were two obvious likely choices. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which I have, and which runs in my family, is associated with extra activation in the fusiform gyrus (Rouw and Scholte 2007) and greater volume in the grey matter of the right fusiform gyrus (Weiss and Fink 2008), so I figure this part of my brain has got to be doing strange things. I believe the fusiform gyrus is in the temporal lobe, and the temporal lobe is associated with a love of music, and we do appear to have an emotional connection with music that is above the ordinary in our family, so the temporal lobe in general seems like a likely prospect. I had also formed the opinion that the right side of the brain is likely to be hyper-developed or hyper-connected in me or in our family, based on my reading about face recognition face processing and colour-grapheme synaesthesia.

I did the obvious, I looked up the Wikipedia page for Benson’s syndrome, and from there I clicked on a link that looked like to might be something detailed and professional-level. I found a short paper by a Dr Bernard Croisile, outlining the basics of Benson’s. Indeed prosopagnosia is one of the symptoms of Benson’s, as I predicted. I found a fairly general description of the damage to the brain associated with Benson’s “bilateral parieto-occipital aptrophy, more frequently in the right hemisphere”, and “bilateral atrophy in the parieto- and temporo-occipital areas that is more severe in the right hemisphere.” My prediction about the right hemisphere was on the money, and there seemed to be overlap between my prediction and the reported areas affected by Benson’s, but I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’m not sure about the relationship between the areas affected by Benson’s and the areas of my brain that should be expected to be unusual.

I discovered one thing of interest in Dr Crosisile’s paper that hasn’t apparent in the newspaper report – that Benson’s has two major types of symptoms, the visual agnosia described in the newspaper report, and also apraxia. Apraxia is the loss of the ability to execute or carry out learned purposeful movements despite having the desire and the physical ability to perform the movements. By one account it is caused by damage to specific areas of the cerebrum, and another account states that it is caused by damage to specific areas in the parietal lobes. I’m not sure what to make of this. Why is apraxia of interest to me? Because this seems to be a link between the use of hand movements in the performance of chores and one of the types of synaesthesia that I discussed in my first post, my description of “the strange phenomenon”. I don’t have apraxia, but I do get a type of visual synaesthesia triggered by the types of tasks that are impaired in apraxia. When I perform very specific household chores I experience automatic and involuntary very specific visual memories of places that I have visited in the past. For example, when I squeeze a half a lemon on a citrus squeezer with a twisting action of the wrist, I will invariably experience a vision in my mind’s eye of the backyard of the home of my Godparents, just as it was when I visited the place when I attended a birthday party and child-minding there in my preschool years, around four decades ago. No, I’m not making this up – I travel all around Australia while I do household chores, and usually to places that I don’t much desire to revisit. How is this all connected to face recognition? Please follow me as I take you on a tour of the connections.

The Strange Phenomenon (my strange phenomenon) is a type of synaesthesia that I experience which is associated with face recognition – it is triggered by seeing a specific face under very specific conditions and the experience triggered is the quite old visual memory of another specific face that looks very similar. I only experience two types of synaesthesia that evoke visual memories – The Strange Phenomenon with visual memories of faces and my fine motor chore synaesthesia triggering visual memories of places. Faces and places are linked because they are both things that prosopagnosics are reported to have trouble recognizing. It is reasonable to assume that whatever part of the brain is malfunctioning in prosopagnosics (people who are bad at recognizing faces) should be involved with visual processing of both faces and places. It makes sense to expect that super-recognizers, the opposite of prosopagnosics, might also have unusual visual processing of faces and also of places. This is true of me – my visual memories of places and faces can both also be synaesthesia concurrents (the experience triggered in synaesthesia). I also score like a super-recognizer in tests – further evidence linking me with unusual face processing. So the link between the faces and the places seems clear enough, with a face acting as the inducer / trigger of my synesthesia and another face and scenes of places acting as the synesthesia concurrents. This  leaves only one synaesthesia trigger unexplained – how do fine-motor chores as synesthesia triggers fit into this picture? It now appears that whatever is up with my brain could in some way resemble the opposite of Benson’s syndrome, and Benson’s involves degeneration of whatever part of the brain does skilled familiar movements such as using a key, a pencil or a razor. Synaesthesia is caused by hyper-connections in the brain, and it seems reasonable to predict a high degree of overlap between the parts of my brain that are hyper-connected and the parts of the brain that degenerate in Benson’s syndrome. So it appears that the bits of my brain that are responsible for dreary household tasks such as squeezing lemon juice or scrubbing clean the rounded end of a wooden spoon are hyper-connected, so when I do some of these tasks, the thoughts associated with my movements trigger synaesthesia in which the part of my brain that recognizes faces and also places is activated by some “weird wiring”, resulting in me seeing dated vistas in my mind’s eye.

The idea that I have something like the opposite of Benson’s syndrome would neatly draw together all the elements of some odd phenomena that I have observed over a number of years – it would at least partly explain The Strange Phenomenon and confirm that it is indeed a type of synaesthesia because it is based on hyperconnection in the fusiform gyrus, and the idea of the opposite of Benson’s would also explain my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia as one of only two types of synaesthesia that I have that are the result of hyperconnection between the fusiform gyrus and other parts of the brain that fall within the range of areas affected by Benson’s syndrome. I guess the million-dollar question is  – why does Benson’s syndrome affect only some specific parts of the brain? What is it about a certain group of areas of the brain that appear to make these areas prone to hyperconnectivity in some families, and vulnerable to dysfunction in Benson’s syndrome? Is there some magic chemical or process that regulates growth in these areas of the brain? I doubt that the answer could be so simple.

From this complicated story I have arrived at three conclusions – that one should never pass up the opportunity to read a newspaper, however uninspiring the paper might be, that one should count one’s blessings, and that dementia patients and research into dementia should be supported.

Do you think I’m brainy enough to figure out how my own brain works? I dunno, but it’s sure fun.

Hiatt, Bethany Penrhos principal’s hardest battle.  The West Australian January 3, 2011. http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/mp/8588194/glenda-parkin/

Croisile, Bernard Benson’s syndrome or Posterior Cortical Atrophy. Orphanet. September 2004. http://www.orpha.net/data/patho/Pro/en/PosteriorCorticalAtrophy-FRenPro10748.pdf

Rouw, Romke and Scholte, H. Steven Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia. Nature Neuroscience. Volume 10 Number 6 June 2007. http://www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/systems-plasticity/jc/potential-papers/rouw_2007.pdf

Weiss, Peter H. and Fink, Gereon R. Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex. Brain (2009) 132 (1): 65-70. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn304 First published online: November 21, 2008. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/132/1/65.full

Postscript February 2013

I’ve got two things to point out. Firstly, if you found the above article interesting, you should read this:

Is synaesthesia caused by low levels of complement? Is Benson’s syndrome (PCA) caused by too much complement C3? Could synesthesia and posterior cortical atrophy be considered in some way opposites?

https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/is-synaesthesia-caused-by-low-levels-of-complement-is-bensons-syndrome-caused-by-too-much-complement-c3/

Secondly, if you look carefully at the above article I think you can see hints that Benson’s syndrome or PCA affects the parietal lobe. This would very much fit in with my theory that synaesthesia is like the opposite of Benson’s, because it is becoming clear that the parietal lobe plays a major role in synaesthesia. See these papers:

Specht, Karsten Synaesthesia: cross activations, high interconnectivity, and a parietal hub. Translational Neuroscience. Volume 3 Number 1 (2012), 15-21, DOI: 10.2478/s13380-012-0007-z
http://www.springerlink.com/content/512306132j162437/

Rouw, Romke, Scholte, H. Steven, Colizoli, Olympia Brain areas involved in synaesthesia: A review. Journal of Neuropsychology. Special Issue: Synaesthesia. September 2011 Volume 5 Issue 2 p.214-242. Article first published online: 16 SEP 2011 DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-6653.2011.02006.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1748-6653.2011.02006.x/full

Some prosopagnosia or face perception-related books for a general readership published this year

Perrett, David In Your Face: The New Science of Human Attraction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

http://www.amazon.com/Your-Face-Science-Human-Attractiveness/dp/0230201296

Sacks, Oliver The Mind’s Eye. Knopf, 2010.

http://www.amazon.com/Minds-Eye-Oliver-Sacks/dp/0307272087#_

Dr Sacks describes his prosopagnosia and his agnosia for scenes in one chapter of this popular science book.

Sellers, Heather  You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness. Riverhead Hardcover, 2010.

http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Look-Like-Anyone-Know/dp/1594487731/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1290256781&sr=1-1

This is a review of the new book You don’t look like anyone I know by Heather sellers. Includes a link to audio of story at All Things Considered at NPR.

Living With Face Blindness: Who Are You, Again? NPR. November 13th 2010.

http://www.npr.org/2010/11/12/131267727/living-with-face-blindness-who-are-you-again

A Most Peculiar Experience

I don’t know about you, but my life has had more than a few strange moments. It is always hard to know what to say when a close friend “comes out”. There was the time when I got into trouble during a night dive on the reef. I’ll never forget meeting my complex and unusual mother-in-law for the first time at our wedding (and neither will our guests, no doubt). An aesthetically weird experience was listening to grotesquely distorted radio transmissions while touring the barren moonscape of low hills and salt flats surrounding Lake Eyre south, alone. After a while it seemed as though whispered words in a demonic voice could be discerned within the metallic noise. Working at a truck-stop in the middle of nowhere in the middle of 45 degree heat was quite an experience. There really are people in this world who enjoy a king-sized lime-flavoured milkshake. I’ve been many things and done a lot of places, or is that been many people and seen a lot of places? I’m not sure, but I’ve been around. In addition to the strange and challenging situations that any person who has lived a reasonably rounded life encounters, I also have odd experiences of a neurological nature. With the wisdom that only comes with maturity, I understand that nature has been kind to me, because she has done so much to make my life interesting.

 

The Strange Phenomenon

John* is a man who’s face I see at least once a week. John is a bit of a character, but I’ve got a lot of respect for John. John is not my friend or anything closer than that. John has an interesting face, and it attracts my attention when he is speaking. His face seems unusual in that it looks quite different when viewed from directly in front compared to how it looks viewed in profile. John has a facial feature that looks prominent in profile but looks like nothing much at all from a full-face view. This is almost like an optical illusion, and it gives John’s face quite a different “personality” when viewed from different angles. Visual curiosities like this grab my attention.

I’m not sure when it was that I first noticed “the strange phenomenon”. It has happened repeatedly over many months at least, possibly over a year. I know for sure that it was happening during the first half of 2010. While watching John (speaking or not speaking), if I was paying attention and also viewing his face from a position at around 45 degrees to the side (the only viewpoint that can capture the overall character of John’s face), and his face is also lit by natural sunlight, then, automatically and without warning, a very vivid memory of the face of Jean*, as she appeared years ago when I last saw her, viewed from exactly the same angle, would appear in my mind’s eye, sort of super-imposed over my real-time visual perception of John’s face. Once my memory of Jean and her face is “unlocked” in this way, memories come to mind about how she looked, and sometimes I recall the sound of her voice, which seems similar to John’s voice, in tone and also in emotional expression, even though there is the obvious gender difference. Maybe Jean is a bit less feminine than the average woman, but generally John and Jean seem pretty normal in terms of gender characteristics. I have never thought of them as androgynous. They both are intelligent adults and there is nothing blatantly strange in their manner or appearance. I have two theories about why this phenomenon is strongest at a 45 degree angle – this angle gives the best overview of a face, and also this view minimizes at least one gender difference between male and female faces. Men generally have broader faces than women, but this facial sexual dimorphism is minimized when viewed from the side.

I have never had this type of experience involving the faces of any other people – it only happens when I’m looking at John’s face. What’s so special about these people that they are the only faces that provoke this strange phenomenon? I will offer an explanation later. The short answer is that their faces look incredibly alike. As I remember her, Jean wore little of no makeup. I suspect that her resemblance to John might not have been as noticeable to me if she had worn enough makeup to make a difference to her facial appearance. It has been a number of years since I last saw Jean, so I don’t know if this strange phenomenon might work in reverse – with Jean’s face automatically evoking a visual memory of John’s. Jean’s face was the first of John and Jean’s faces that I ever saw. There is no overlap in time of the different periods of time when I’ve seen their faces regularly. At least five years separates these periods.

Who is Jean? Jean is a woman who served me over a counter, sometimes, at a place that I frequented for a few years about seven years ago.  I haven’t (knowingly) seen her for years. I did not know her socially and I wouldn’t say we were particularly friendly (or unfriendly). At the time there was something in her manner and presentation that gave me the impression that there could be an unusual conservatism in her personality. I hardly remember Jean, except for those times when I see her face and hear her voice with stunning clarity in my memory. (Does that make sense?) I had not thought of Jean being in any way connected to John or resembling John before the strange phenomenon started happening. I just hadn’t seen the connection before. I have no record of Jean’s appearance besides my memory, and I don’t think I ever knew her surname. Jean and John would be roughly similar in age, but they are not siblings. I am not aware of any familial connection between them, but I also can’t be absolutely sure that none exists.

The strange phenomenon is a very orderly, sensitive and predictable thing. Conditions have to be “just right” for it to happen. If John’s face is not lit by sunlight, the phenomenon will not happen. If John has a big, beaming smile, it will not happen, but a more subtle smile sometimes does not block the phenomenon. If John looks inebriated or unusually emotional in some way, the phenomenon does not happen. When John gained weight, the phenomenon stopped. Excess weight distorts and covers some elements of the appearance of the face (and is also a health hazard). The strange phenomenon does not happen if I view John’s face from a profile view, and it rarely happens when his face is viewed from a full-face angle – it generally needs to be viewed from 45 degrees. The strange phenomenon requires viewing of John’s face in the right conditions for a few moments before it happens – it happens abruptly but not instantly.

Since I was a young child I have had synesthesia/synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a common benign condition of the brain associated with an unusually rich network of connections in the white matter of the brain. Most cases are genetic in origin, and it runs in my family. One of the types of synaesthesia that I have, coloured letters and numbers, is associated with “extra activations in the fusiform gyrus” which is a part of the brain. The fusiform face area is the part of the brain that “does” face recognition. It is situated within the fusiform gyrus. It appears that there is something interesting going on in my fusiform gyrus. The strange phenomenon has many features in common with synaesthesia, and I believe it is an unusual type of synaesthesia. I believe the very specific image of John’s face seen under very specific conditions is an inducer, trigger or stimulus of my synaesthesia, and my remembered image of Jean’s face is the concurrent or additional sensory experience in my synaesthesia. Like synaesthesia, the strange phenomenon is automatic. It is not something that I “do” intentionally or wish to happen, although I find it amusing to anticipate it and then see it happen. I am sure I would be unable to prevent it by conscious will from happening. Like synaesthesia, the phenomenon is reliable. Given exactly the right conditions, it will happen.

What does the strange phenomenon feel like? The normal process that this phenomenon most feels like is face recognition, but with the twist that my mind “changes its mind” about who it is looking at. It feels as though at first my mind normally recognizes the face as John’s, with no fuss, but then it seems to impose a different interpretation, dredging up Jean as a better answer to the question of “Who is the owner of this face?” I’ve wondered why my mind should be so willing to abnormally review its original correct decision. I can only guess that there is some mechanism in the brain that gives precedence to much older face memories when choosing between very similar-looking stored memories of faces during the process of identifying a currently seen face. Alternately, my brain, and all brains, might be designed to identify not only the faces of individuals, but also to identify similarities betweenpeople’s faces, as a clue to genetic relatedness. I know enough about biology and evolution to know that intelligent animals such as humans are likely to have evolved features to help us to identify our kin and kinship between others.

Does the strange phenomenon cause emotional distress? Not to me, but it is a weird experience. Many of the types of synaesthesia that I experience are so unobtrusive and fleeting that they can go unnoted, and some types are so predictable that they feel completely ordinary. In my experience it is the types of synaesthesia that are rarely experienced and are person-triggered that are the most startling and subjectively weird. The strange phenomenon fits into both categories. It is these experiences that can make one think “WTF?” or “S*** a brick!” or “That is the strangest thing!” (to quote the title of a book about synaesthesia).

Viewing people’s faces is obviously a social-type experience. As anyone would, I feel as though I am witnessing moods and personalities when I view faces. I wouldn’t be surprised if John and Jean turned out to have similar personalities, but at the same time, I don’t feel that I can read Jean or John “like a book”.

When John gained weight the appearance of his face changed and the strange phenomenon stopped. This is not the first time that a type of synaesthesia that I’ve experienced that is triggered by particular characteristics of a person has been extinguished by a change in that person. This possibly gives me a greater appreciation of time and people, and the brevity of childhood and life in general.

There are many reasons why I believe that this strange phenomenon is interesting and unusual. It seems to be a mixture of synaesthesia, ordinary remembering and face recognition, and I’m sure this is an unusual thing. The strange phenomenon differs from ordinary remembering in many ways. It requires a very specific visual trigger, it happens repeatedly and reliably, like synaesthesia it relies on attention but is otherwise independent of conscious control, and it evokes a vivid memory of the face of a person who shouldn’t be memorable to me. This phenomenon is one of two different types of synaesthesia that I experience which automatically “unlock” vivid and often very old visual memories, giving extraordinary glimpses into a world of visual memories that are apparently stored away in my mind like photos or videotapes, but can only rarely be accessed.

Significantly, the other type of synaesthesia of mine which gives spontaneous vivid mental images evokes my memories of specific places (not people) that I have visited in the past, but which often aren’t particularly memorable. These “visions” of places look as they did last time I saw them, frozen in time. I “see” places (in my mind’s eye) that have since been demolished, and some of these images date back to scenes my early childhood. These involuntarily recalled visual memories of places are only visual experiences, they do not involve smells or sounds or other non-visual types of sensory experience. There appears to be a neurological link between the recognition of faces and the recognition of places, with disability in recognizing both of these types of things found together in some people. The famous neurologist and author Dr Oliver Sacks is one person who has prosopagnosia (a disability in recognizing faces) and also a disability in recognizing places. There appear to be two different scientific terms in use for this neurologically-based inability to recognize scenes: “agnosia for scenes” (seen in a New Scientist article) and “topographical agnosia” (Sacks 2010). In a recent article published in New Yorker magazine, and also in his recent book The Mind’s Eye, Dr Sacks described his problems with getting lost in the streets after unknowingly walking past his own house a number of times, and also being unable to recognize people he knows well. The British primatologist Dame Jane Goodall is another famous person who has trouble recognizing faces and also places. Faces and places are the only types of things that I receive spontaneous “visions” of. I am sure this is no mere coincidence. Like the strange phenomenon,  I find it amusing to anticipate receiving a “vision” of a place when the conditions are just right, and then watching it appear, suddenly, and for no logical reason.

My strange phenomenon has two features which I believe make the strange phenomenon truly strange: it involves effortless mental processing of a task that should be rather difficult (sorting through a lifetime of memories of countless faces, then matching two faces of people of different genders that look very similar from angles which give a view that is least affected by sexual dimorphism), and the strange phenomenon also manifests as a very vivid image in the mind’s eye (language and words have no role in this phenomenon).

I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and I am closely related to people who also have this type of synaesthesia and who have also been formally offered places, more than once, to gifted and talented educational programs. I believe there is a connection between the synaesthesia and the smarts. I am also in a family that has at least four generations of people who have particular talents in the areas of English and foreign languages (grapheme-colour synaesthetes are among this group). I believe it is possible that which ever genes give rise to grapheme-colour synaesthesia and related cognitive differences could be evolutionary adaptations that give an advantage in learning languages and reading. I believe it could be as simple as a gene that boosts the development of visual memory, for words, letters and also faces.

I am not aware of any description in the scientific or popular literature of an experience that is genuinely the same type of thing as the strange phenomenon. This does not make me doubt the reality of what I have experienced. I would expect that this would be a rare phenomenon, because it is the result of a combination of some most unusual factors – two different observations of a quietly unusual pair of people, separated by a very long period of time, observed by another unusual person, who has the interest in scientific matters and the inclination to try to make sense of it all. Rare things do happen, but not very often.

*Not their real names. Obviously, the true identities of John and Jean cannot be divulged.

 

Alternative ways of categorizing the strange phenomenon/competing explanations

Is it just an idiosyncratic and meaningless connection between two things due to synaesthesia?

I don’t think so. The two people objectively do look similar, so the link does not seem to be random or accidental. It’s not as though the sight of a face make me hear a sound or see a colour, the strange phenomenon only involves faces.

Is the phenomenon just the simple remembering of a similar-looking face?

No, it is different, because it is much less influenced by conscious control than simple remembering, and the memories evoked are more vivid and extensive than can be retrieved by conscious effort at remembering. Perhaps one could describe the strange phenomenon as face recognition that is “turbocharged” with synaesthesia. The strange phenomenon feels strange, because it makes me see a similarity between two faces and two people that doesn’t seem to make sense – they can’t be identical twins, because one is male and one female.

Is the phenomenon an experience typical of those of “super-recognizers”?

No, but there are many similarities. Super-recognizers report being able to recognize people who were last met many years ago and were not more than a fleeting acquaintance. My remembering Jean is like this. Super-recognizers also are able to recognize despite changes in appearance such as child to adult transition and changes of hairstyle. My recognizing of similarities in faces of different genders is similar to this. The phenomenon feels like face recognition. I have already completed some tests of face recognition ability that are readily accessible through the internet, and I got perfect scores, which could indicate that I’m a super-recognizer.

Is the phenomenon like one of those uncanny moments of noticing a family resemblance, like noticing a grandparent’s frown in a young child?

It is similar to this in that it involves similar-looking people but it also transcends stuff like gender and age, but noticing family resemblances is different in that it is unpredictable, occasional, is typically triggered by gestures or expressions, and does not typically unlock a cache of hidden memories. The strange phenomenon seems to involve the whole face, not a part of the face.

Is this phenomenon a case of mistaken identity with two very similar-looking people, in an unusual situation? (as might happen when meeting the identical twin of a person that one already knows)

This explanation seems applicable in some ways but isn’t. John and Jean do look similar, when viewed from a certain angle, but there is no mistaken identity. All the way through the strange phenomenon my conscious mind is clear about who is who, the identity confusion happens on a more primitive level. I’ve known two sets of identical twins in my past. I never liked any of them enough to care which was which.

Is the phenomenon like recognizing a previously known genetic syndrome in a number of different people, such as identifying that a stranger has Down syndrome?

The phenomenon is similar to this in that it transcends stuff like age and gender. Identifying a person as having Down syndrome is different in that (for me) it is not a strange experience and does not evoke visual memories of individuals seen in the past. I believe my brain treats Down syndrome in a similar way that it treats racial differences. Perhaps my brain would act more oddly when confronted with people who have a genetic syndrome that is not fairly common, familiar and obvious. I think it is likely that John and Jean have the same rare genetic syndrome, but I don’t know what it might be. There is more to this story than I’ve set out here.

Is the phenomenon Synaesthesia?

I believe it is. It is reliable, repetitive, automatic and involuntary like synaesthesia. I cannot voluntarily access my memories of Jean as fully as happens in the phenomenon. It does not require or involve effort. Like synaesthesia it requires paying attention to the trigger. It is sensory (visual). It involves a very specific trigger evoking a very specific experience, like synaesthesia. It happens suddenly and without warning. It “hits you”. Some types of synaesthesia are like this. It involves memory, and synesthetes are thought to have superior memory.

Why do you ask and answer your own questions?

I’m not sure, but it works for me.

 

Some explanations that I believe are NOT applicable

Some type of delusional misidentification syndrome (DMS)

There are many different recognized types of delusional syndromes that involve incorrect identification of people, and some are thought to be due to faulty face recognition or perception. I have carefully considered all of the DMS’s listed at the Wikipedia, and none of them describe the same situation as the strange phenomenon. The only type of DMS that I have heard of that is in any way similar to it is something that Dr Oliver Sacks described in his article in New Yorker, a hyperfamiliarity for faces that Sacks claims was described by Devinsky (Sacks gives no reference in this article). Sacks describes a disorder in which everyone feels familiar to a person with the disorder, and the person with the delusion might approach strangers and address them as though they are old friends. I do not do this. Even if I was a more extroverted person, I would not do this because I do not have a feeling of familiarity for masses of other people. I believe there is nothing wrong with my ability to tell the difference between faces that I have never seen, and those that I have seen in the past. I can’t imagine what it would be like to walk into a room of people and feel like I was surrounded by old friends. That doesn’t sound like me at all! I’ve had a read of the 2002-2003 journal paper by Vuilleumier et al about a case of hyperfamiliarity for unknown faces. I do not believe I have anything in common with the patient described, except that we both have good face recognition abilities (the title of the paper appears to be a typo). Neither John nor Jean were unfamiliar to me during the time when the strange phenomenon started. Their faces were and are not unfamiliar faces.

The simple fact that I was able to get some perfect scores in scientifically credible tests of face recognition surely shows that I do not have a fault in my face recognition brain “hardware”. I wouldn’t expect a delusional syndrome to be associated with a very high level of ability.

Out of curiousity I did a face memory test that I found at the website of the BBC. I do not know anything about who created this test, but it can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/ I got a perfect score for face recognition, a score of 91% for temporal memory associated with face memory (average score 68%) and a low number of false-positive identifications. I think the fact that I scored very low (one, caused by a misunderstanding of the question) for false-positive identifications shows that my identification of faces in general isn’t influenced by some hyperfamiliarity, misidentification or delusion disorder. I don’t have a general problem with seeing unfamiliar faces as familiar.

There is one area of cognition in which I do possibly have an abnormal sensation of false familiarity. You could call it “dialogue déjà vu”. It is associated with things that I write or say to other people. I might write a note or tell a story to someone else, and immediately after I might feel that it is too familiar, and I wonder whether I have already told that person in the past. The result is that I never feel completely confident about judging if I’ve already had a conversation or informed someone about something, and I annoy family sometimes by telling the same story twice.

A visual disturbance or vision defect

There are some interesting and exotic types of visual disturbances, but they do not adequately explain the strange phenomenon, because it only happens when I see the face of one particular person under very specific conditions. No visual disturbance or defect in vision could be this selective. I have had glasses for short-sightedness since I was a teen, but I only really need to wear them for driving at night. Small print is getting harder to read as I age, and my colour vision at night isn’t perfect, but I regard my vision as pretty normal for my age. As a synaesthete who experiences visual manifestations of synaesthesia as appearing in my mind’s eye, and not projected into space around me, I am well aware of the difference between things seen through my eyes and things seen within, in my mind, memory or imagination. Jean’s face is seen in my mind’s eye – her face is not a defective image originating from my eye.

How blind could I be if I am able to get perfect scores on tests of face recognition ability?

Hallucination

Here are definitions of “hallucination” from three different sources:

Famous neurologist, author and prosopagnosic Oliver Sacks quoted from his Feb 2009 TED talk about hallucinations:

“They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to be from the outside, and [seem] to mimic perception.”

Clinical Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist Dominic Ffytche in a 2004 clinical guide to visual hallucination and illusion disorders, on the difference between visual images and hallucinations:

Visual images appear in the mind’s eye and are under some degree of volitional control, as opposed to hallucinations and illusions which are externally located, unpredictable and outside volition (in the sense that one cannot choose to make a hallucination of, say, a face turn into that of a chair).”

 Wikipedia article titled “Hallucination”

A hallucination, in the broadest sense of the word, is a perception in the absence of a stimulus. In a stricter sense, hallucinations are defined as perceptions in a conscious and awake state in the absence of external stimuli which have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space.”

The Strange Phenomenon does not fall under the definition of hallucination for two reasons – because it is not percieved or located externally, it is in the mind’s eye, and it does not happen in the absence of a stimulus, the stimulus is the visual perception of John’s face as seen under very specific conditions. This is not a conventional stimulus, it is a synaesthesia-type stimulus.

Psychosis

I do not know what psychosis or insanity are like, as I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my life to never have had such experiences, but I’m sure that such disorders of the mind would not manifest with the great precision, order and rarity of the strange phenomenon. I do not live a disordered life. I have no demerit points on my driver’s licence.

Apparently “It is well established that schizophrenia is associated with difficulties recognising facial expressions of emotion.” (abstract of Tomlinson et al 2006). I have done a test of identifying facial expressions of emotion, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, and I got a score of 33 out of 36, which indicates that I am “…very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.” So I guess that means it is highly unlikely that I have schizoprenia.

Recreational drug effects

The same comments apply as those for psychosis. I do not regularly take any prescription, alternative medicine or illicit drugs, except caffeine and the odd aspirin. I rarely drink alcohol. I do not get any effect like the strange phenomenon from any drug or alcohol. Synaesthetes don’t need drugs!

Epilepsy (including reflex epilepsy)

I do not have this diagnosis. There is no shaking or loss of consciousness associated with the strange phenomenon.

Migraine Aura

Headaches are not associated with the strange phenomenon. I sometimes get super-acute senses with a headache, but nothing associated with “visions”, visual disturbance or face recognition.

Illness, fever, sleep deprivation, fatigue, delirium

Not applicable. The strange phenomenon has been happening over a very long period of time.

Religious or supernatural “vision”

I’ve been an atheist rationalist for most of my life. This type of thing doesn’t happen to me. God doesn’t care about me, and the feeling is mutual.

 

References and recommended reading

Ffytche, DominicVisual Hallucination and Illusion Disorders: A Clinical Guide.ACNR. VOLUME 4 NUMBER 2 MAY/JUNE 2004. p. 16-18.http://www.acnr.co.uk/pdfs/volume4issue2/v4i2reviewart3.pdf

Jäncke L, Beeli G, Eulig C, Hänggi J. The neuroanatomy of grapheme-color synesthesia.Eur J Neuroscience. 2009 Mar;29(6):1287-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19302164

Lambert, Craig Facial pheenoms. Harvard Magazine. September-October 2009. http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/09/facial-pheenoms

Mendez, MF, Cherrier, MM Agnosia for scenes in topographagnosia. Neuropsychologia.2003;41(10):1387-95. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12757910

Rouw, Romke and Scholte, H. Steven Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia.Nature Neuroscience. Volume 10 Number 6 June 2007. http://www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/systems-plasticity/jc/potential-papers/rouw_2007.pdf

Russell R, Duchaine B, Nakayama K Super-recognizers: people with extraordinary face recognition ability.Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.2009 Apr;16(2):252-7. http://pbr.psychonomic-journals.org/content/16/2/252.full.pdf

Sacks, Oliver Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds. (lecture given Feb 2009) TED. http://www.ted.com/talks/oliver_sacks_what_hallucination_reveals_about_our_minds.html

Sacks, Oliver A neurologists’ notebook: face-blind.New Yorker. August 30th 2010. p. 36-?. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_sacks

Sacks, Oliver The mind’s eye. Picador, 2010. (chapter in this book titled “Face-Blind” p.82-110 is a longer version of the New Yorker article above)

Tomlinson, Eleanor K., Jones, Christopher A., Johnston, Robert A., Meaden, Alan, and Wink, Brian Facial emotion recognition from moving and static point-light images in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research. July 2006. Volume 85 Issue 1 p.96-105. http://www.schres-journal.com/article/S0920-9964(06)00098-3/abstract

Vuilleumier, Patrik, Mohr, Christine,  Valenza, Nathalie, Wetzel, Corinne and Landis, Theodor Hyperfamiliarity for unknown faces after left lateral temporooccipital venous infarction: a double dissociation with prosopagnosia. Brain (2003) 126 (4): 889-907. doi: 10.1093/brain/awg086 http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/126/4/889.full

Weiss, Peter H. and Fink, Gereon R. Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex. Brain (2009) 132 (1): 65-70. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn304 First published online: November 21, 2008. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/132/1/65.full

Wikipedia contributors Delusional misidentification syndrome. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Delusional_misidentification_syndrome&oldid=364074060

Wikipedia contributors Face perception. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Face_perception&oldid=397226066

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform face area. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_face_area&oldid=378670842

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_gyrus&oldid=400014320

Wikipedia contributors Hallucination. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hallucination&oldid=405603431

Wikipedia contributors Prosopagnosia.Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Prosopagnosia&oldid=400314172

 

Face recognition tests

MIT’s Face to Face Online Study http://facetoface.mit.edu/

“Test My Memory” from Faceblind.org Including “Online Cambridge Face Memory Test” and “Famous Faces” http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/

“Test My Brain” Including “Face Recognition, Emotion Perception, and Personality” and “Can you name that face?” and “Beauty and the eye of the beholder” http://www.testmybrain.org/

BBC Science Face Memory Test  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/