Tag Archives: Dyslexia

If dyslexia isn’t a visual problem, then what is it?

Forget colour overlays – dyslexia is not a vision problem. by Clare Wilson

New Scientist. 25 May 2015.

Do you want to know my theory about dyslexia? I think dyslexia is a lack of synaesthesia, for two very good reasons. Firstly, if you break the act of reading down into its most basic element (phonics or translating graphemes into phonemes), it is basically synaesthesia in which visual symbols as a visual stimuli evoke an experience of language sounds. Reading is basically hearing symbols, and that experience of language sounds further triggers the experience of concepts being triggered by language sounds. I know that things as complex as concepts can be synaesthesia concurrents because I myself experience a number of varieties of synaesthesia in which quite sophisticated concepts are the concurrents. I think the reason why some people are poor at reading or slower to pick up the skill is identical with the normal genetic variation in the degree which people are more or less syanesthete. There is debate about how much evidence has been found by researchers about brain structure and syanesthesia, but I still think it likely that syanesthesia is the result of a hyper-connected brain, and I think the opposite is true of dyslexics, and I believe the theory of dyslexia and hypoconnectivity is nothing new in dyslexia research.

The second reason why I think dyslexia can be regarded as the opposite of synaesthesia (even though I’m open to the possibility that there could be some individuals who have both conditions for reasons unknown) is that in my family of blood relatives we have a pedigree of generations who have a profession that primarily deals with the written word or have scored in academic selection tests in the highest levels of percentiles in reading, writing and general literacy skills, even though their results in other academic areas are above average but not exceptional, and most of these people appear to be grapheme-colour synaesthetes. I believe this association is not random, but such a relationship can only be proven by studies done by researchers on large numbers of people, and if any researcher would like to put my theory to the test and publish the results I would expect that I would be appropriately credited in their research paper.

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?

Backs up my ideas

I was reading through back issues of New Scientist, and I found a brief article about the work of researcher Sophie Scott and other researchers, written by Simon Makin. This article is about one theory of dyslexia winning out over another. The theory that seems to be the most compatible with recent research findings is the theory of dyslexia as a “disconnection syndrome” resulting from poor connections between particular regions in the brain. The competing theory of dyslexia as a disability stemming from subtle problems with hearing speech sounds is apparently being debunked.

What relevance does this have for my theories and ideas about synaesthesia and visual perception? The theory of dyslexia as a problem of hypoconnectivity in the brain is not new, but it is nice to see it winning favour among researchers because it fits well with observations that I made years ago at this blog that there seems to be a cluster of phenomena linked to grapheme-colour synaesthesia in my family, and some of those phenomena are exceptional gifts in specific areas of literacy, including spelling, writing and reading, identified by professional and independent testing for selective school entry, as well as precocious reading and one case of superior face memory (a super-recognizer). A few years ago at this blog I contrasted this combination of literacy and visual memory gifts found along with synaesthesia (a sensory-perception phenomenon that researchers have found is caused by greater than average connectivity in the brain) with what I have argued is the opposite condition of a type of dementia named Benson’s syndrome which has loss of ability to read, spell and recognize faces as symptoms of atrophy at the back of the brain, the general area of the brain that I theorized is hyper-developed or hyper-connected in some members of my family, including myself. Although dyslexia isn’t the same thing as Benson’s I think the evidence about dyslexia fits in nicely with my ideas. If a reading disability is caused by hypoconnectivity in the brain, that does seem to support my idea that reading superiority can be caused by the same difference that makes a brain a synaesthete brain, that difference being hyperconnectivity. The hypoconnected dyslexic looks like the opposite of the hyperconnected synaesthete who has always been ahead of his or her peers in reading and writing, and perhaps even taught him or herself to read before grade one.

Some ideas that I’d like to (explicitly) lay claim to (right now) in 2014

A note of warning – If you are thinking about copying or plagiarizing any of the text, ideas or descriptions in this post or using it in 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 my objection will be well publicized. If you believe that you published any of these ideas before I did, please let me know the details in a comment on this article. If you want to make reference to this blog 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.

The idea that Benson’s syndrome or posterior cortical atrophy or PCA, a variety of dementia, is caused or develops in a way that can be seen as the opposite of the synaesthesia linked with exceptional visual memory and literacy skills that runs in my family (this idea has been explored previously in this blog).

The idea that the above cited states develop or are caused in a way that makes them seem like opposites because they both affect the same or similar areas of the brain, but in opposite ways.

The idea that the above described process happens because Benson’s syndrome and our variety of synaesthesia are both mediated by the same or similar natural chemical or cells or biological agent in the brain, one caused by high levels of the mystery substance and the other caused by low levels (a hypothesis that I briefly suggested in January 2011).

The idea that one of the many known or unknown elements of the immune system that impact brain development is the mystery substance referred to above (a hypothesis that I briefly outlined in 2012).

The (implied in above ideas) idea of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia. (This idea was first published by me in 2012 in a blog post archived here, was I believe plagiarized in 2013 here, and was the subject of my plagiarism claim here.)

The idea that one or more of the complement immune chemicals is the  mystery substance referred to above.

The idea that the C3 complement immune chemical  is the  mystery substance referred to above.

The idea that synaesthesia is linked with one or maybe more immune diseases or conditions caused by low levels of complement.

The idea that genes for synaesthesia stay quite common in the gene pool because of some associated cognitive advantage (probably superior memory) that balances out any disadvantages caused by deficiencies in the immune system.

The idea that some or many people unintentionally experience a memory process that operates in a similar way to the method of loci memory technique in their everyday lives, unintentionally forming long-term associations between individual learned concepts and individual visual memories of scenes (I have named this phenomenon Involuntary Method of Loci Memorization or IMLM).

The idea that IMLM operates in such a similar way to synaesthesia that one could argue that it is a type of synaesthesia.

The idea that synaesthetes are more likely to experience IMLM than non-synaesthetes.

The (implied) idea that the method of loci memory technique is similar to or a type of synaesthesia.

The idea that synaesthetes might have a natural advantage in using the method of loci because the method of loci is similar to or is a type of  synaesthesia. This idea that seems likely in light of the case of “S” the Russian memory performer with many types of synaesthesia described by Luria. 

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span.

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span and can thus be used as an indicator of which synaesthetes are synaesthetes due to enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span rather than other possible causes of synaesthesia. Support for this idea comes from the fact that IMLM appears to be a non-developmental variety of synaesthesia that can form new long-term associations in adolescence and adulthood.

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by the unusual possession of levels of synaptic plasticity typical of a young child, during adolescence or adulthood.

The idea that IMLM is caused or enhanced by some characteristic of the immune system that affects the functioning of the brain. Many different elements of the incredibly complex immune system are thought to affect the functioning or development of the brain, and could thus be involved in IMLM, including the complement system, microglia and the MHC class I molecules. Researchers such as Beth Stevens and Carla Shatz have investigated this exciting area of neuroscience. In 2012 I hypothesized at this blog that synaesthesia could be caused by low levels of complement, this idea implying that the immune system is directly involved in synaesthesia (or at least some cases of synaesthesia). I believe these ideas were plagiarized in a paper published in 2013.

The idea that IMLM is similar to the “Proust phenomenon” in that it is very similar to synaesthesia or is a type of synaesthesia and involves episodic or autobiographical memory as a concurrent.

The idea that phonics as a foundational reading skill is similar to or is arguably a type of synaesthesia in that it involves the involuntary association of individual speech sounds with individual printed letters or combinations of letters, as the result of learning in early to mid childhood.

The idea that at least one type of dyslexia is like a deficiency of synaesthesia.

The implied idea that if synaesthesia has as it’s basis hyperconnectivity in the white matter of the brain, dyslexia as an opposite of synaesthesia or a deficiency of synaesthesia is or could be caused by hypoconnectivity in the white matter of the brain (I suspect there might be existing research evidence that supports this idea).

The implied idea that in at least one cluster or grouping of cases synaesthesia is associated with superiority in literacy or reading skill.

The idea that synaesthesia can happen in different regions of the brain, and because of this the experience of various types of synaesthesia can vary in detectable ways because of the influence on the synaesthesia of the varied ways that different areas of the brain operate. This can mean that one synaesthete can experience different types of synaesthesia that operate in very different ways, for example, some types of synaesthesia more rare or spontaneous or intrusive than other types. (I am not completely sure of the originality or the novelty of all of this idea.)

The idea that there is an association between synaesthesia and super-recognition that is not merely coincidental.

The idea that synaesthesia is a type of memory or learning. (Not sure if I’m the first to note this obvious fact).

The idea that synaesthesia concurrents are re-experienced memories, or re-activated “learnings” of concepts, not perceptions. (Not sure if I’m the first to note this obvious fact). In support of this idea I can assert that synaesthesia is like face recognition in that both are visual memory-based phenomena which are subject to the Verbal Overshadowing Effect or something very similar. My assertion that synaesthesia is subject to the verbal overshadowing effect is based on my own observations (outlined elsewhere in this post).

The idea that super-recognizers should or could be trained and employed as expert consultants in the practice of medical genetics.

The idea that medical geneticists and all types of medical specialists need to have a super-recognizer level of face memory or face recognition ability, so that they can intuitively and quickly recognize medical facies.

The idea that there is no clear point of distinction between medical facies or faces associated with genetic syndromes and normal faces.

The idea that super-recognizers could be used to facially identify blood relatives of a person or persons.

The idea that super-recognizers could be used to facially identify the specific ethnicity of a person.

(below ideas added January 28th 2014)

The idea that super-recognition or being a super-recognizer could develop as the result of an unusual level of fascination with the visual appearance of landscapes or scenes, rather than from a fascination with faces, and thus be a side-effect hyper-development of a part of the brain that serves two similar functions.

The idea that super-recognition or being a super-recognizer could, at least  in some cases, develop as the result of a general hyper-development of the visual sense to compensate for problems in the auditory sense during childhood such as temporary deafness, recurrent ear infections, glue ear or poor auditory processing.

(below idea added February 1st 2014)

The idea that lexical-gustatory synaesthesia is an exaggerated form of some kind of evolutionary adaptation in the brain that biologically primes the mind to attend to or react to speech on the subject of food (this idea was discussed at this blog in a post dated January 27th 2011, with more consideration in a later post).

(below ideas added February 6th 2014)

The idea that creativity might be immediately enhanced during and only during the duration of physical or visual-spatial activity because the activity activates areas of the brain associated with movement and in turn these areas activate other areas of the brain including those that give rise to conceptual thinking, and the increased activation makes novel associations between diverse thoughts and concepts more likely, and that this process is like synaesthesia or is a type of synaesthesia, and the types of physical activity that are the most effective inducers of this effect might be highly specific, highly specific in effects, highly varied between individuals and highly idiosyncratic, as is typical of synaesthesia inducers and concurrents. Driving a car can act as an inducer of this effect. (I have gone some way to exploring this idea in past posts.)

The idea that mental flexibility might be immediately enhanced by the above effect, which I will name “movement – thought-flexibility synaesthesia”.

The idea that thinking might be immediately enhanced by the above effect.

The idea that memory might be immediately enhanced by the above effect.

The idea that the above effect is similar to embodied cognition or is a type of embodied cognition.

(below ideas added February 14th  and  February 20th 2014)

The idea that synaesthesia is like the process of face recognition (and vice versa), because they both

– are subject to the verbal overshadowing effect or something similar

– are automatic

– are involuntary

– have a sensory inducer, in face recognition always visual, in synaesthesia I think most frequently visual

– have or can have a concurrent that could be described as a memory, a concept or a personality (I’m comparing face recognition with personification synaesthesias and the synaesthesias that I have described at this blog which have visual memories of scenes as concurrents)

– are or can be visual in both the inducer and concurrent

– typically involve the fusiform gyrus

– involve set pairings of inducers and concurrents (same person’s face seen before then recognized later)

– involve set parings of highly specific inducers and concurrents (I recognize that an employee at my local supermarket has a sister who has just started working there too, as their faces and bodies and hair are near-identical, but for the extra acne and the more receding chin of the new employee. They are very similar in appearance but my discrimination is highly specific, just as I can recognize that the green wall on the lower floor of a public library is close to but not quite the same colour as Tuesday.)

– both can have, but do not always have an actual face as an inducer (we can recognize the faces of celebrities in photos, caricatures and art, even seeing Marilyn Monroe’s face in a pattern of brown coffee cups stuck to the wall at the coffee shop at the art gallery.)

(below idea added February 17th 2014)

“My particular interest in personification is my own theory that personification synaesthesia (as experienced by myself) or something like it gives rise to superiority in face memory (or being a super-recognizer) by naturally making the faces of unknown people more memorable and interesting”

The above is a quote from an article that was published at the blog in October 2013.

(below ideas added February 19th 2014)

The idea that the synaesthesia brain is the result of the developmental influence or shaping from, or the adaptation to, the behavioural phenomenon of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The idea that synaesthesia, intellectual giftedness or high IQ and autism or Asperger syndrome seem to coincide more often than chance because gifted and autistic kids are more likely to experience “flow” and this in turn can influence the developing brain in a way that gives rise to synaesthesia.

(below ideas added February 20th 2014)

The idea that the genuine conscious awareness of synaesthesia is a threshold phenomenon that operates in conflict or competition with conscious thinking, meaning that consciously thinking about synaesthesia can inferfere with the perception of concurrents, and synaesthesia must reach a particular level of intensity before it interrupts the experience of consciousness and becomes itself the subject of conscious awareness. I think that the idea that thinking about synaesthesia can interfere with the perception of synaesthesia might be related to the “verbal overshadowing” effect which has been described and debated about by researchers. In fairness I should point out that Mark C. Price speculated in the recently published (2013) Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia that synaesthesia could be subject to the verbal overshadowing effect. My own ideas were arrived upon independently from Price’s writing or work.  I base the ideas of synaesthesia being a threshold phenomenon which can also be interfered with by conscious thinking on a number of my own observations. In direct contradiction to what I had expected to find, my scores for accuracy for individual letters and numbers in The Synesthesia Battery (a scientifically-validated online test of synaesthesia) were lower for the numbers and letters that have colours that I find beautiful and which I have thought about to some degree, while my best accuracy was for the numbers and letters that have the dull and ugly colours. It seems the less I think about the concurrents the more accurately I can percieve them when they are evoked. I have also noticed that most of the types of synaesthesia that I experience I was not consciously aware of before I started to think about and examine the idea of synaesthesia. I never realised that I had complete stability in the colours I associate with months and days of the week till I tested myself. While I had a dim awareness of colour colouring my thoughts, I’d not realised that this worked like synaesthesia till I went looking for a pattern using simple testing. My fine motor movement-visual memories of scenes synaesthesia evokes concurrents that are so fleetingly and subtly experienced that they just feel like random thoughts, and indeed I now believe it is possible that the random thoughts of many or even all people are in fact synaesthesia of various types. I have also observed that there are some very unsubtle and intrusive types of syn that I experience, and they are typically rarely experienced and are associated with people, emotions, faces, singing voices or music that I find striking or novel as inducers. Because of the circumstances of these examples of synaesthesia, I think some kind of threshold is being breached when these types of synaesthesia are experienced by me.

The idea that one of the established defining criteria for synaesthesia, that it gives rise to perceptions or concurrents which are “consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial)”, is wrong, and specific categories of memories of complex visual images such as faces and scenes, which are processed in the fusiform gyrus, can also be experienced as genuine synaesthesia concurrents. I base this assertion on the fact that I often involuntarily experience synesthesia concurrents of this type, and I have written about such experiences right from the first post in this blog which was published in 2010. I have also named types of synesthesia that have complex visual memories as concurrents: the strange phenomenon, fine motor task – visual place memory synaesthesia, involuntary method of loci memorization, etc. There are also many accounts or scientific observations of synaesthesia with complex visual concurrents in the scientific literature on synaesthesia.

The fusiform face area doesn’t just do faces

Tolga Çukur, Alexander G. Huth, Shinji Nishimoto and Jack L. Gallant

Functional Subdomains within Human FFA.

Journal of Neuroscience.

16 October 2013  33(42) p.16748-16766

doi: 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.1259-13.2013

http://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/42/16748.abstract

As I’ve pointed out before at this blog, I believe that my high ability in face memory is accompanied by higher than average ability in recognizing or remembering the appearance of other types of things, such as body parts, words, cars, plant species, colours and probably other things as well. What this means in practice is that I’m a pretty good speller, reader and writer, I’m great at remembering and recognize faces (even if I can’t always put a name to the face and I don’t always acknowledge that I’ve recognized a person), and I’m also very good at identifiying plants and skilled at categorizing them as weeds or wild native plants or exotic garden varieties, because I can be confident that I know exactly which species the plant is, based on recognizing the shapes and colours of plants. I also believe that high ability in visual memory for many categories of things runs in my family, and I offer this as an explanation for why extraordinary test results for literacy skills and also literacy-related careers seem to run in one lineage in my family. I contrast this genetic literacy gift with an opposite condition which I have also seen running in some families, in which people struggle to express themselves in print, write in a style that mimicks speech and not the writing of others, consistently spell in a way that looks like random phonetic guessing, and who appear to have no ability to remember the way that correctly-spelled words look. If the fusiform face area (FFA) in the fusiform gyrus in the brain is the place that “does” face visual memory and plant visual memory and word visual memory, then having a good one is a definite advantage in many ways.

If you couldn’t see properly, would you be the last one to know?

I think it is fair to say that they average person believes that seeing and vision is all about the eyes. In actual fact, a person could be blind but still possess perfectly functioning eyes. the eyes don’t see. It is the brain, or the person who’s consciousness is produced by their brain, which does the seeing, more specifically, the parts of the brain that are responsible for visual processing. I think they are mostly at the back of the brain.

Vision is the result of the operation of the eyes and also the brain, and neuroscience is more and more becoming aware that there is a great amount of normal and also unhealthy variation among brains. The brains of dyslexics don’t handle reading well. The brains of left-handed people are definitley different to those of most of us, but not in one uniform way. Some people’s brains are damaged or derailed in development even before their untra-uterine development is completed and they are born, because their mother smoked during pregnancy or drank alcohol or had some misfortune such as catching one of the many infectious diseases that can harm a foetus. The genes that we all inherit or mutate can affect they way our brains work in profound ways, including visual processing. Prosopagnosia or face-blindness can be inherited and can run in families.

Your brain is different to my brain in countless ways that have an impact on the way our minds work. I often experience music as a coloured form of entertainment. You probably don’t. I can’t help but remember the faces of people that I meet, even if they are people who play very minor roles in my life and are not expected to be met ever again. Here’s an example. I took one of our kids to the Royal Show recently. One of the attendants at one of the animal pavillions was kind enough to let my child collect an egg that one of the prize-winning special-breed chickens had laid in it’s cage. He was a nice person, but there was nothing particularly memorable or different about his face or appearance, and I never expected to meet him again. Some hours later I involuntarily spotted his face among the teeming crowd of scores of show visitors surging down one of the streets in the showgrounds. As is usual, I consciously avoided looking like I had recognized him, lest I be seen as some kind of stalker weirdo. Is this kind of experience a common one? A rare one? Who could know for sure? One thing that I do know is that it was a complete surprise when on a whim I found the Cambridge Face Memory Test online and did the test and found that I had gotten a perfect score. At the same website for the first time I saw the term “super-recognizer”. What is a super-recognizer, I thought? Could I possibly be a super-recognizer? I’ll Google it!

It appears that I have some kind of visual gift, but I had no idea. People who have the opposite level of ability in face recognition also sometimes have little awareness that they are different from the norm. I recall seeing one of the prosopagnosics who were interviewed on the US version of 60 Minutes saying that before her diagnosis she had thought she was just not good with people. That’s a very vague idea of what the issue is. That is a remarkable lack of insight into what was going on in her life, but of course, I’m not blaming her. If you are looking for examples of visual or sensory processing disabilities that people can have but be unaware of, there are clearer examples to find than prosopagnosia. I’ve read that stroke patients can be unaware of a loss of vision in half of the visual field of one or both eyes (hemianopsia) or can be unaware of a loss of awareness of one side of space (Hemispatial neglect). People who have one form of colour-blindness, Anomalous trichromacy, can be unaware that their visual perception is different. Doctors even have a term for a lack of awareness of disability or deficit; Anosognosia. Psychologists have a term that seems to cover similar ground, plus some; the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In the Dunning-Kruger Effect people who lack skill in some area may mistakenly believe they are skilled or even above average, while people whose skills are excellent may lack the appropriate self-confidence to go with their high ability or expertise, because they mistakenly or unknowingly assume that everyone is operating at their level and they are just average. In my experience, the Dunning-Kruger Effect applies to visual processing ability. I’ve seen people time and time again mis-identify things such as plants, vehicles or animals with confidence, and time and time again, I get told that I’ve got a great eye for detail. Sometimes it seems to me that it is instead the case that I’m inexplicably surrounded by people who are borderline cases of cortical blindness, or are way overdue for an appointment with an optometrist. If you couldn’t see properly, would you be the last one to know?

I’ve just found out about Brad Pitt and prosopagnosia

A CNN news article about Brad Pitt and his suspicions about prosopagnosia came out on Friday. I’ve only just found out about Brad Pitt and face recognition issues. I’m amazed. There is speculation about how he visually recognizes his partner actor Angelina Jolie. Perhaps Mr Pitt just consistently approaches the most beautiful woman in the room. I guess you can do that when you look as gorgeous as Mr Pitt.

Note the photos and notes in the CNN article about many other famous prosopagnosics, including Australia’s beloved Dr Karl and Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden. A disability in face memory isn’t the only difficulty in life that Crown Princess Victoria has had to contend with. She is also a dyslexic and won a battle against anorexia in the 1990s. According to the CNN article, Brad Pitt has been invited to go to Carnegie Mellon University to see Prof Marlene Behrmann and be tested for face-blindness or prosopagnosia and to have his brain imaged. That’s his decision to make. Prof Behrmann does appear to be an expert in the area of face recognition. I would cite Dr Brad Duchaine as another world-class expert.

I don’t see anything wrong with Prof Behrmann’s offer, but a celebrity shouldn’t feel that he has to make a public show of getting diagnosed with something. I guess Mr Pitt has seen the positive impact that his partner’s recent sharing of medical information has made. Perhaps he feels that he would like to also share and go public about a personal issue, and have a professor check out his lobes and gyri and white matter. Perhaps Mr Pitt feels that his apparent difficulty with face memory has alienated so many people that he must now seek and offer a public explanation of why he hasn’t recognized people. Being diagnosed as a prosopagnosic in a consultation that is reported in press releases would appear to be a solution. Finding out whether or not you are a super-recognizer of faces or a prosopagnosic can also be done privately and at no cost. The short version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test used to be freely available on the internet for anyone to complete in the privacy of their own home, with access to their own score. In my opinion, no one should have to volunteer to have their brain scanned or be studied as a single case or be studied as one of many research subjects just to get access to scientifically sound face memory testing and one’s own test results. I also don’t think anyone should have to pay a consultation fee to see someone with letters after their name just to get access to testing. Good face memory tests can be and have been offered freely over the internet. Governments subsidize public access to important health-related information resources on the internet, and I don’t see why face recognition tests should be any different.

I can’t believe that I’ve just written a post about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and a beautiful princess who once had an eating disorder. It just isn’t the kind of thing that I do.

CNN Staff Does Brad Pitt suffer from face blindness? CNN May 24, 2013.  http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/23/showbiz/celebrity-news-gossip/brad-pitt-esquire-face-blindness/index.html

Tom Junod A life so large. Esquire. June/July 2013.  http://www.esquire.com/features/brad-pitt-cover-interview-0613

Shilo Rea News Brief: Carnegie Mellon Invites Brad Pitt To Campus For Face Blindness Diagnosis, Research. Carnegie Mellon News. May 23rd 2013.  http://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2013/may/may22_faceblindness.html

Princess Victoria’s face confession. Female First. February 13th 2008.  http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/royal_family/Princess+Victoria-48079.html

Time-blind, face-blind, smell-impaired, touch-disabled, dyslexic – there’s an amazing variety of disabilities of perception

It goes to show how common synaesthesia is, when a host of a radio show episode about super-recognition that I have referred to previously at this blog just happens to be a synaesthete. I know this because she was on the radio yesterday morning promoting her latest pop psychology book, which looks like it will be an interesting read. The BBC broadcaster, author and psychologist Claudia Hammond experiences the days of the week as having their own colours and insists that Monday is a pillar-box red, an assertion which to my mind does not seem odd but simply incorrect. Sure enough, the letter M is red (but certainly not pillar-box red) but surely it is plain to anyone that Mondays are white? Hammond and the cheery radio show host Natasha Mitchell also discussed other varieties of synaesthesia: time-space synaesthesia and mental number lines. Hammond’s new book is about the perception of time and it looks like it will include discussion of disability in perceiving time, and will also probably cover time-space synaesthesia.

I’ve had a look on the internet for more info about Hammond’s new book titled Time Warped, and while reading an excerpt of the book at Amazon I’ve found yet another obscure and highly specialized type of disability of perception, an inability to sense the passing of time, a condition which appears to be so obscure that it still has no name. Hammond gives a fascinating description of Eleanor, who has a deficit in sensing the passing of time that goes way beyond poor time management skills, and also has dyslexia, probably not coincidentally.

In this blog which is primarily about exploring possible links between synaesthesia and high ability in face perception and also an exploration of the opposite condition of prosopagnosia or face-blindness, I have discovered that prosopagnosia is by no means the only highly specialized disability of perception. Prosopagnosia is only one of a range of visual agnosias, which is a sub-set of the agnosias, which are a huge range of brain-based diabilities (not associated with memory loss) in recognizing specific things such as people, voices, shapes, smells, time, faces, colours, classes of objects, images of objects, pain, speech, text, body language, intonation, etc. Prosopagnosia appears to be often associated with another agnosia which is a disability in establishing visual memories of scenes, including things like streetscapes and buildings, and it seems possible that it could be linked with other better-known disabilities such as dyslexia. Each case is different, and prosopagnosia and other agnosias can be caused by genetics or damage in the brain, so one should not make sweeping generalizations. There appears to be no standard term or definition of the issue with place memory, with a variety of terms in use. I guess most people would be aware of the sensory and perception disabilities of blindness, deafness, paralysis and dyslexia, but there is also a huge range of other specific disabilities and disorders of perception and understanding, some affecting taste, smell, balance, mathematical and number sense, touch, music and tone perception. Many of these can be naturally-occuring or the result of brain injury. New Scientist magazine reported a while ago that a deficit in the sense of touch appears to be genetically linked with deafness. Scientists are only now beginning to establish knowledge about the nature of these disabilities and possible relationships between them. On top of this bewildering range of agnosias and disabilities are sensory disorders and visual disturbances that can be asociated with mental illness or are similar to mental illness. And on top of that are sensory-cognitive experiences that are simply odd or unusual but not disordered or a deficit. Synaesthesia fits into this category, of which there are more types than any sensible person would claim to know.

I find these things endlessly fascinating because it gives an insight into the significant fact that there can be many important differences between the way that apparently normal, intelligent people percieve and understand what appear to be simple sensory inputs from the world around us. The more I study this subject, the more I understand that there is nothing simple about perception and the understanding of sensory inputs. This kind of brain-work is hugely complex and it is no wonder that many areas of the brain are involved in this kind of work, and that sensory processing is very much involved in thinking in general. It is impossible to guess how many different ways that the person sitting next to you on the train might differ from you in perception and sensing, and it isn’t only about disability. For many of the agnosias and diabilities of perception and sensing there are conditions that are opposites or give rise to superior abilities that are like opposites. Does the old bloke across the way see violet mauve in his mind’s eye when he hears the train driver sound her horn, because the horn is at a pitch that his mind links with this colour, in an interaction between his perfect pitch and his coloured sound synesthesia? Does the super-recognizer in the carriage feel a tingle of familiarity from looking at two of the faces in the carriage? Is the super-taster still recovering from the second-rate coffee that he paid too much for at a fancy cafe? Is one passenger watching the screen display of info about which station the train is at like a hawk, instead of using her spare time to catch up on some reading, because she was born without any sense of time passing and can’t remotely judge the duration of her planned train journey?

Time warped: changing your perception of time. Life Matters. Radio National. July 2 2012. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/claudia-hammond/4100994

Listening to Heather Sellers’ autobiography

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

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

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

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