Tag Archives: Face-Blind (article/chapter by Oliver Sacks)

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

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.