Tag Archives: Books for a Popular Readership

Synaesthesia linking concepts with scenes – maybe not so hard to explain, and maybe not really so strange?

I have recently been reading the chapter about synaesthesia in V. S. Ramachandran’s latest book about neuroscience, and among many other interesting things Ramachandran explained that some simple concepts are processed in the temporal lobes. This is the general part of the brain that I believe is hyper-developed or hyper-connected in my case, and it is the part of the brain in which the fusiform gyrus is located, where the recognition of faces, bodies, scenes, numbers and words is done, and colour is processed. I know as the result of testing that I have an above-average ability in face recognition, possibly in the super-recognizer class, and I also experience types of synaesthesia that involve faces, scenes, colours, words, letters and numbers, so I think I’m on solid ground when I assert that there is something interesting about my fusiform gyrus. Like many synaesthetes I also experience synaesthesia triggered by listening to music, and I believe that appreciating music has an unusual prominence in the lives of me and some of my synaesthete relatives. This type of thing is thought to be associated with the temporal lobes which do auditory processing among many other things, so I believe that whatever is different about my fusiform gyrus or (gyri?) is not limited to it but extends into the temporal lobes. So I was particularly interested that the processing of simple concepts goes on in the temporal lobe, because another type of synaesthesia that I experience links concepts with visual scenes which are processed in the fusiform gyrus in the temporal lobes. If these concepts are also processed in the temporal lobes, that would be another type of synaesthesia of mine that is a purely intra-temporal lobe phenomenon, and therefore a scientific explanation of many of the synaesthesia experiences of mine could be explained in one very short phrase; bushy temporal lobes. But I’m not completely sure that the types of concepts that my mind links with scenes are the same type of thing that goes on in the temporal lobes. This is the passage from page 104 of the book The Tell-Tale Brain by V. S. Ramachandran:

“Brain damage can make a person lose the ability to name tools but not fruits and vegetables, or only fruits and not tools, or only fruits but not vegetables. All of these concepts are stored close to one other in the upper parts of the temporal lobes, but clearly they are sufficiently separated so that a small stroke can knock out one but leave the others intact. You might be tempted to think of fruits and tools as perceptions rather than concepts, but in fact two tools – say, a hammer and saw – can be visually as dissimilar from each other as they are from a banana; what unites then is a semantic understanding about their purpose and use.”

This is a list of some of the concepts that are involved with the concept->scene synaesthesia of mine:
the concept of a bad “state housing” area that one could conceivably find one’s self living in if one’s life went to hell
the concept of Charles Darwin
the concept of Charles Darwin coming to terms with the death of a child
the concept of adoption
the concept of doing one’s own tax return
the concept of cooking with lard
the concept of Bettina Arndt
the concept of the toy the sketch-a-graph.

These concepts aren’t quite as simple as the conceptual categories of “fruits” or “tools”. Is this really the same type of conceptual thinking as that described by Ramachandran? I really don’t know. Maybe I would have more of a clue if I could find the time to read through an interesting-looking paper that I have found on the internet; The Representation of Object Concepts in the Brain by
Alex Martin. I’ve had a quick look at the paper, and I have spotted a couple of interesting things on page 32, a truly amazing misspelling of the word “synaesthete” and what appears to be confirmation that different types of grapheme -> colour synaesthesia involve different parts of the brain. I’m betting that my grapheme -> colour synaesthesia involves the ventral temporal cortex rather than sites in the occipital cortex, because for me the colours of the alphabet are experienced as knowledge of the colours of letters more than a perception of the colours of letters. This doesn’t make the experience any less real or specific. I can still “see” the colours very clearly in my mind’s eye.

I’ve had some thoughts about my concept -> scene and scene -> concept synaesthesia, and I think it could be the case that it only seems to be a strange and nonsensical way of thinking because it has been taken out of the context in which it evolved, and placed into this abstracted, complex, high-speed modern world that we live in. As I have previously observed, often there is a semantic relationship between the place seen in the scene and the concept, and sometimes the scene is of a place that I visited or frequented during the period of time when I was introduced to the concept or was thinking intensively about that concept. This would appear to be a completely useful and sensible way to think, with a thought triggering a real and visible scene illustrating and spatially locating the concept. Maybe a pre-historic human thinking with this type of synaesthesia might experience an appetite for a particular type of seafood, and then in her mind, helpfully, in response to the concept of that specific type of seafood, flashes the scene of the exact beach where she previously went hunting successfully for that particular seafood delicacy. I’ve had a little bit of experience hanging out with fishermen who knew what they were doing, and I know that catching a fish often requires knowing and doing exactly the correct thing – being in the right place at the right time with exactly the right bait and tackle for the specific thing that you are hunting. Casual attitudes and fuzzy thinking don’t get results. The exact nature of synaesthesia seems to fit in with this type of task. In the stable, predictable world of the hunter-gatherer in which there isn’t much abstract thinking to complicate life, this type of synaesthesia could possibly be a most useful tool of the mind, retrieving memories of exact locations just when they are required. One has to wonder if this type of thinking would have been so useful that everyone should have evolved to have it. Was synaesthesia the norm rather than the exception in early humans? Is my mind an atavism, or could it be a souvenir of a liaison between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthal race? Or is it true that this phenomenon isn’t synaesthesia at all, but a completely normal synaesthesia-like thing that is so ordinary that people don’t notice or discuss it?

Having a mind that automatically connects concepts with scenes might have been a very useful and sensible thing in the early times of our species, but when we link concepts with scenes in a mind that is living in the modern industrialized world, things can start to look a bit weird, because there has been an explosion of more abstract thought and complex learning, bringing with it a massive range of possible concepts to think about. In prehistoric times there were no tax returns or underclass suburbs or female sex therapists with gruff voices and high media profiles. It’s a strange old world that we live in, and as synaesthesia involves our thoughts and perceptions of this world, it should probably look just as strange.


A brief report on my synaesthesia experiences that involve concepts as triggers or evoked experiences https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/a-brief-report-on-my-synaesthesia-experiences-that-involve-concepts-as-triggers-or-evoked-experiences/

Martin, Alex The Representation of Object Concepts in the Brain. Annual Review of Psychology. 2007. 58:25–45.
First published online September 1, 2006.
The Annual Review of Psychology is online at http://psych.annualreviews.org
This article’s doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190143

Ramachandran, V. S. The tell-tale brain: unlocking the mystery of human nature. William Heinemann, 2011.

Interesting sights of Guildford

When people who have prosopagnosia explain how they get by in life with a substandard ability to recognize people by their faces, they often cite other features of people which can be distinctive enough for positive identification. The voice is an excellent identifying feature, but it only works within earshot when the person is talking. Some prosopagnosics identify others by distinctive walks. I believe it is possible to identify people by seeing a distinctive collection of details that can in themselves be more or less distinctive, a mode of identification that involves both looking at many details and seeing an overall pattern. The distinctive details can be just about any part of the body. Family ties can be seen in some teeth, a nice-looking set of teeth or crooked teeth, but not straightened teeth. A person’s overall build and bodily proportions can be very distinctive. Feet and ears can be memorable. Some people have elbows that really stick out. Even something as plain and overlooked as a back can catch the eye.

I often become scenically lost after seeing people off to the airport. I usually end up travelling through Midland and Guildford, looking around at the sights. Guildford is a pretty, peaceful place, with the historical old boys’ school, the disused weigh-station, the railway crossing that looks like a death-trap and lots of very old buildings that have been done up as restaurants or still operate as shops or hotels. Despite the interesting sights, I just didn’t feel like stopping for a visit. I’ve developed a bit of an aversion to historical places that look a bit forgotten, and prestigious old suburbs that look as though they are designed for the wealthy aged. I’ve recently had reason to visit an exclusive old part of the Western suburbs, and for me places like these and Guildford feel a bit too much like a museum, or a memento mori.

So I kept cruising out of Guildford, in the middle of a sunny weekday, but I was forced to roll to a stop at some traffic lights. A bus was pulled up beside me, and then a bloke on a motorbike stopped between us and struck up a conversation with the bus driver, who was very much exposed by an open window. I looked across and the appearance of the back of the motorbike rider struck me as familiar and interesting, but I never saw his face. The way his once-navy-blue-coloured t-shirt had faded to a speckled grey pattern from exposure to fabric-destroying salt in sweat and UV rays is something that I’ve seen before on the back of an interesting man who I know, who also happens to have a passion for motor bikes. The bike rider’s ridged and muscular back was another feature that these men have in common. With the exception of the odd young buck, normal men have backs that are pretty much flat from side to side, but the motor bike rider and the man who I know have backs with a deep depression down the centre and firm-looking mountain-ranges of muscle on either side of this valley. The man who I know is one of a small minority of blokes who are naturally and mysteriously blessed with a hard physique well into middle age, despite never playing sport, nor going near any gymnasium, and no use of steroid supplements. The most scruffy appearance of the motor-bike rider in Guildford made me doubt that his muscular back was the result of a membership of any health club, and I doubt that there are too many places or groups that would accept this rag-tag as a member, with the possible exception of a bikie club. The motorbike rider had an untidy style that is often associated with bikies, but he didn’t really fit the stereotype. His helmet was coloured, not black, his clothing didn’t look like a bikie uniform, and his bike couldn’t have been one of those excessively noisy ones favoured by bikie types, because he was having a conversation over the top of the sound of it running. I wondered whether I was looking at a man who is individually too wild for any group, and soon after that, I don’t know exactly why, I felt sure that I was looking at Adrian.

Adrian, otherwise known as “Mad Dog” or “Mad Adrian” once had a fan club of thousands on Facebook, but no one even knew what his full name was.  He has been the subject of many true stories of first-hand sightings and numerous urban legends, indeed he could be described as a Western Australian urban legend. I remembered that the Midland area is a known haunt of Adrian, who for many years has displayed the interesting habit of roaming the streets on a bicycle or in more recent times a motorbike, barking, growling, yelling or swearing at drivers and pedestrians. I believe it must have been Adrian who I saw a very long time ago when I was in my teens or early 20s, somewhere in the Western non-mall section of Hay Street in Perth. There was a young man with a beard and scruffy curly light brown hair walking beside his bicycle barking loudly at startled shoppers, a hilarious sight when the look of terror isn’t on your own face.

The man on the motorbike didn’t yell or bark, but I knew there was something interesting about him. The lights went green and the bus and I took off, and I expected the bloke on the bike would zoom way ahead of us, but it appeared that he kept talking and keeping pace with the bus. I veered slightly out of my lane to pass safely.

A while later in hindsight I wondered – why did Mr Muscles on the motor bike like to socialize while in charge of a moving motor vehicle amongst traffic? I was recently stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident involving a motorbike rider who was seen lying on the road not moving. Motorbike riding is not a safe mode of transport at the best of times. One could argue that motorbikes are for madmen, but it is also a mode of transport that preserves the sense that one is still in touch with the world as one travels through it. Did the man on the motorbike like to chat while on a bike so that he could make a fast escape if the conversation was not to his liking? Does he want to be among people while still controlling the distance between himself and the rest of the human race?

I later remembered that I had once seen a photograph of a man identified as “Mad Dog” in a book of photographs of Midland, and at the time I had been struck by the muscularity of his physique. They still have that book at the library. The information given in the brief caption of the photograph suggests that “Mad Dog” has had a difficult life. His face is partially obscured in the black and white photo, but I could see that his body and unkempt hair look the same as the motorbike rider sighted in Guildford. He is wearing a faded t-shirt that was once a dark colour, which is so degraded by wear that it is spotted with small holes. Clearly this is a man who likes to get his full money’s worth out of budget-priced casual attire. In this photo “Mad Dog” is holding a bicycle. I have never seen such a healthy-looking marginalized person in all my life.  I have got to wonder if there is a link between the muscles and the marginalization. These days there seems to be nothing more unfashionable than unpolished, wild masculinity. It appears that the winners in our society are the smooth-talkers and the pen-pushers with pencil necks and flat backs. I’m sure they have comfy lives and have lots of money, but they never get mistaken for legends.

A link to a photograph of Adrian on Facebook – a poor image of his “back and crack”, wearing the same faded blue t-shirt



Gentile, Andrew Midland, a Swan Valley town:  images from the passing of an era during the last years to century’s end. (text and photographs by Andrew Gentile), A. Gentile, 2002.

Some Facebook groups about “Mad Dog” Adrian of Midland

We love you, Mad Adrian


Mad dog (of midland) fan club….waaagh!


I’v been terrorised by “MAD DOG”


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.


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

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.

Link between face recognition and synaesthesia becoming obvious – interesting new article about tone-deafness and prosopagnosia in Scientific American magazine

This interesting recent article explains the many similarities between tone-deafness and face-blindness, and how both conditions can be caused by “structural disconnection” rather than damage to the specific parts of the brain that “do” face recognition or musical perception. The distinction between the developmental and congenital forms of these conditions are explained.

You don’t need to be a genius to see that the “structural disconnection” discussed in this article could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, but just in case that isn’t completely obvious, synaesthesia is mentioned at the very end of the article, in the notes about the author of this article, who is a scientist at Trinity College in Ireland who studies “the genes involved in wiring the brain and their possible involvement in psychiatric disorders and perceptual conditions, including synaesthesia.” Indeed!

A word of caution – I don’t think there is anything in this article that says that prosopagnosics are more likely to be tone-deaf, or vice versa. Although it would seem a sensible assumption that a group of traits should be found together: good face recognition should be found with intact or great or maybe even excellent ability to consciously comprehend musical notes (perfect pitch or absolute pitch), should be found with synaesthesia, but this is not always the case. Apparently there are synaesthetes who are also very poor at face recognition, and the synaesthete author Vladimir Nabokov has been reported by Oliver Sacks to have possibly had “a profound amusia” (Sacks 2007, 2008 p. 109-110), based on a passage that Nabokov wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. I think amusia is a fancy word for tone-deafness. In the book Musicophilia Oliver Sacks describes a number of different types of amusia, and interestingly, this prosopangnosic author also describes in his book some episodes of  amusia that he experienced which were a part of the aura of his  migraine headaches. There are so many connections here that it’s almost like looking at a plate of spaghetti!

Are people who have perfect pitch better than average at face recognition? Are super-recognizers synaesthetes? Is perfect pitch unusually common in synaesthetes? Are the opposite deficits associated with each other? Get to work, researchers!

Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-tone

Mitchell, K. J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568

Sacks, Oliver Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain. Revised and expanded edition. Picador, 2007, 2008.

Tranel, D. Damasio, A. R. Knowledge without awareness: an autonomic index of facial recognition by prosopagnosics. Science. 1985 Jun 21;228(4706):1453-4. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/228/4706/1453.abstract  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4012303


Postscript 2013 – I’ve had comments from at least one person who is apparently a definite and high-profile super-recognizer to the effect that she is not a synaesthete, so that’s a strike against the idea that supers are synaesthetes. Regardless, I reserve the right to point out that some researchers have found that some study subjects who claim to not have synaesthesia have returned test results that suggest that they are, so it appears to be possible to be a synaesthete and not know it.

Radio Shows / Audio About Face Recognition

Eskin, Blake (2010) You look unfamiliar. New Yorker. August 23, 2010.


[interview with Oliver Sacks]

Hammond, Claudia (2009?) The ‘super-recognisers’ who never, ever, forget a face. Health Check. BBC News. 27/2/2009?



Gross, Terri (2010) Oliver Sacks: A Neurologist Examines ‘The Mind’s Eye’. Fresh Air. NPR. October 26th 2010.  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130732146



Raz, Guy (2010) (2010) Living With Face Blindness: Who Are You, Again? All Things Considered. NPR. November 13th 2010.




[interview with Heather Sellers, author of memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness]

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.


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


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.


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.


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?


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.


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/