Tag Archives: Developmental topographical disorientation

Another fascinating addition to the Mindscapes series

Mindscapes is a series of articles by Helen Thomson at New Scientist magazine on neuro-psychological topics that often overlap with the kinds of things that I write about here. The latest in the series is an article about Sharon whose condition is developmental topographical disorientation (DTD). For a long time I’ve included within this blog’s large and useful link list a link to a useful researchers’ website about this type of disability or problem because it appears to coincide with prosopagnosia in some people, and extreme variation in face memory ability is one of the main themes of this blog. That researcher’s website is Getting Lost.ca and it is run by people at the NeuroLab which is directed by Dr. Giuseppe Iaria and is located in the Department of Psychology of the University of Calgary. Sharon in this article was diagnosed by Dr Iaria.

Without knowing it, I have already written about the type of experience that Sharon feels when she becomes geographically disoriented (but this is possibly a piece of writing I never published). On the odd occasion I’ve had similar experiences while riding trains in low light conditions or on unfamiliar train lines. For a moment or two I will struggle to make sense of where I am in relation to Perth’s geography, nothing will feel familiar and will feel as though I might have mistakenly got on a train heading in the wrong direction. There is no sensory alteration associated with this kind of brief experience, just the loss of a sense of certainty and a feeling of familiarity. My theory is that this experience is caused by two different systems in the brain (visual and spatial) which both contribute towards navigation going out of sync, disconnecting or one operating in  the absence of the other. I believe the basic problem is a loss of a sense of the four directions, or in my case, more specifically a loss of the sense of where the sea is (west). Nothing in navigation makes sense if you don’t know the directions, which is why maps all have a north-pointing arrow (should point west in my opinion). I think Dr Iaria’s team’s  idea of a therapy using a belt with tactile stimulation to indicate north is a great idea, but they might want to consider if some “patients” might find some other direction more personally and emotionally  meaningful.

I think it is interesting that the researchers have found that people who experience DTD have “decreased communication between two brain areas”. You could call this hypoconnectivity, and this fact fits in neatly with the well-supported theory that prosopagnosia is characterized by hypoconnectivity. At this blog I have put forward the theory that super-recognition, which is elite ability in face memory and the opposite of prosopagnosia, is the result of hyperconnectivity, a theory that is supported by the fact that I’m a super-recognizer and I also experience many different varieties of synaesthesia, a harmless neuro-cognitive variation which a number of research studies have found to be associated with hyperconnectivity. At this blog I have also theorized that there are clusters of interesting neuro-cognitive conditions that could be seen as opposites because they are either characterized by high ability and hyperconnectivity or impaired ability and hypoconnectivity. In the “hyper” camp I place super-recognition, synaesthesia, precocious reading, a heightened visual and spatial sense of place (manifest by walking, outdoor photography and creating navigational computer simulations as favoured pastimes) and giftedness in literacy skills such as reading, spelling and writing (which runs in my family which has included a number of specialist English teachers, a librarian and a university student of literature). In the “hypo” camp I’d place DTD, dyslexia and poor reading fluency and prosopagnosia. My scheme of clusters raises a couple of interesting questions. Is there a condition that is the opposite of synaesthesia? How would it manifest in experiences or behaviour? Might it manifest as an inability to comprehend metaphorical speech or thinking, such as the statements “I’d like to try a sharp cheese” or “What a cheeky little car the Volkswagen Beetle was”. Might it manifest as a lived experience in which colours are not a big thing or a huge pleasure or a distraction? Might it manifest as a calm and logical disposition in which ideas are only thrown together after fully conscious and logical consideration? We must always take into consideration that synaesthesia appears to be a stable and ubiquitous feature of the human race, but synaesthetes are always naturally a minority group. If it is so fantastic being hyperconnected, with good reading skills and top face memory, why hasn’t evolution selected this trait for all or most of humanity? This brings us to the second question that follows from my cluster theory. If a group of disabilities is characterized by hypoconnectivity, and being a “hypo” runs in families (as it does), then why does nature keep giving us “hypo” people? My intuition about evolution and bell curves tells me that there must be either a negative side to being a “hyper” or a positive side to being a “hypo”. Being average and normal must have a lot going for it too I guess. Do “hypo” people have some special gift? Are they good at sport or perhaps unusually calm or focused? Some people believe dyslexia in some way promotes entrepreneurial ability, citing names like Sir Richard Branson and Kerry Packer as examples. More research needed!

An afterthought; synaesthete readers – do you have colours for the four directions? Are they based on the colours of the first letters of the names of the directions, or are they unique colours? Do you experience images for any of the directions?

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Nothing simple about dyspraxia

A case of dyspraxia with possible prosopagnosia and significant issues with fine motor skills such as using zips and buttons and handwriting, but Victoria Biggs was also a precocious reader and an academically very high achiever as an adult. Fascinating! This case is evidence against my idea that reading, face memory and fine motor skills should cluster at similar levels of ability; high in my case and low in people who have Benson’s syndrome. But I think it is interesting that in Ms Biggs’ case she is at the extremes of levels of ability in all three. In the radio show other issues mentioned include finding one’s way through streets (suggestive of topographical disorientation or DTD), poor ability to plan including planning motor tasks, difficulty reading facial expressions and as a result difficulty reading social situations, and also displaying odd facial expressions. I’m amazed that the term “autism” didn’t come up once in this story, because there seems to be so much in Ms Biggs’ story that overlaps with countless accounts of autism or Asperger syndrome, not that I think autism would be an appropriate label. I don’t. I’d love to know whether Ms Biggs is a left-hander.

Victoria Biggs is the author of Caged in Chaos—A Dyspraxic’s Guide to Breaking Free.

Living with dyspraxia. presenter Amanda Smith

The Body Sphere. ABC Radio National.

Thursday 27 March 2014

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bodysphere/clumsiness/5348588

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bodysphere/caged-in-chaos/5326564

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