Tag Archives: Mysteries

Faces of the same woman?

There’s a compelling bit of forensic face recognition on the front page of today’s West. Unfortunately the photos of the faces of whistleblower Ashton Foley and the American woman she is alleged to be is not shown in the online version of the news story. Do you think they are photos of the same person? I can only pick a few differences, none of which definitely rules out a match. I think the photo on the left is of a younger, slimmer, more miserable or tired woman, perhaps with darker skin. I get a feeling of African-American racial identity from the face on the left but not the one on the right. Why is unclear, and it could be based on stereotyping. The photo on the left is, I presume, a mugshot, the one on the right apparently not. Perhaps the cues that a photo is a mugshot make me unconsciously associate it with African-Americans. Psychology research finds that most people operate on racist stereotypes even if we aren’t consciously racist.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two is that the one on the left has eyes that seem darker. This difference in the eyes could possibly be a result of lighting, because the eye is a three-dimensional thing, and when we look at an eye we literally look into an eye, at the pupil and the iris, which are inside the structure of the eye. I’ve been perplexed when viewing video of people who have light-coloured eyes and there are moments when one or both eyes seem to darken or pupils seem to enlarge greatly, giving a scary effect, but what’s really happening is that the angle of the light changes and the eye is becoming insufficiently lit to display their light-coloured irises.

The hair, hairline, ear profile, shoulder slope and most aspects of the faces seem to match. I would very much like to see profile shots of Ms Foley and the American woman she is alleged to be, to see if the ear shape matches. Ear shape is apparently as unique and identifiable as the face. Ear shape was an important factor in trying to solve the fascinating Taman Shud case in Adelaide.

As Ms Foley suggests, fingerprints need to be checked, even though the forensic science of fingerprints has been seriously bought into question. As a super-recognizer I don’t have a strong intuition or feeling of recognition about the question of identity. I can’t rule out a match, but that doesn’t prove a match.

http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/newshome/16048470/inquiry-ordered-into-peel-mystery/

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

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

Top of C3 theory post

A quote from New Scientist magazine about a study of microglia responding to changes in synaptic function in mice by Assistant Professor Beth Stevens and colleagues:

“Synapses were marked out for destruction through labelling with an immune chemical called C3”

Immune cells gobble up healthy but idle brain cells. 1 June 2012 by Andy Coghlan New Scientst. Magazine issue 2867. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428675.500-immune-cells-gobble-up-healthy-but-idle-brain-cells.html

A quote about her research at Prof Stevens’ professional web page:

“C1q and downstream complement proteins target synapses and are required for synapse elimination in the developing visual system.”

Beth Stevens, PhD, Boston Children’s Hospital http://www.childrenshospital.org/cfapps/research/data_admin/Site2674/mainpageS2674P0.html

A quote from Wikipedia about synaesthesia:

“This cross-activation may arise due to a failure of the normal developmental process of pruning, which is one of the key mechanisms of synaptic plasticity, in which connections between brain regions are partially eliminated with development.”

Wikipedia contributors Neural basis of synesthesia.  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 May 2012, 01:45 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Neural_basis_of_synesthesia&oldid=494244732

A quote from Wikipedia about Benson’s syndrome or Posterior Cortical Atrophy:

“The disease causes atrophy of the back (posterior) part of the cerebral cortex, resulting in the progressive disruption of complex visual processing.

Wikipedia contributors Posterior cortical atrophy Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 February 2012, 22:34 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Posterior_cortical_atrophy&oldid=475033670

Two quotes by me from this blog:

“The idea that I have something like the opposite of Benson’s syndrome would neatly draw together all the elements of some odd phenomena that I have observed over a number of years…”

“I guess the million-dollar question is  – why does Benson’s syndrome affect only some specific parts of the brain? What is it about a certain group of areas of the brain that appear to make these areas prone to hyperconnectivity in some families, and vulnerable to dysfunction in Benson’s syndrome? Is there some magic chemical or process that regulates growth in these areas of the brain? I doubt that the answer could be so simple.”

The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome? by C. Wright Am I a Super-recognizer? January 4, 2011. https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/the-opposite-of-bensons-syndrome/

My doubt has suddenly evaporated! Could complement be the “magic chemical”? Where’s my Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine?

The DOI link in the New Scientist article discussed above doesn’t work, but I’m quite sure this is the journal paper that the article is about:

Dorothy P. Schafer, Emily K. Lehrman, Amanda G. Kautzman, Ryuta Koyama, Alan R. Mardinly, Ryo Yamasaki, Richard M. Ransohoff, Michael E. Greenberg, Ben A. Barres, Beth Stevens Microglia Sculpt Postnatal Neural Circuits in an Activity and Complement-Dependent Manner. Neuron. Volume 74 Issue 4 691-705, 24 May 2012. 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.03.026 http://www.cell.com/neuron/retrieve/pii/S0896627312003340

A number of other interesting journal papers can be found through Prof. Steven’s web page, some available to read in full text (if you can find the button to click on in the top right corner of the PubMed page). I also found a recently published item by Stevens and colleagues that looks like it is about the same subject as the New Scientist article, published in a conference abstract supplement of the journal Schizophrenia Research, which is a bit of a mystery as I didn’t think the title suggested schizophrenia. You need to pay to read the full text, which I didn’t. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0920996412700397

Here’s something else to read, if you’re keen. You can read the whole thing for free:

Marie-Ève Tremblay, Beth Stevens, Amanda Sierra, Hiroaki Wake, Alain Bessis and Axel Nimmerjahn The Role of Microglia in the Healthy Brain. Journal of Neuroscience. 9 November 2011, (45): 16064-16069; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4158-11.2011  http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/45/16064.long

 

C3, C4, C5....

C3, C4, C5….

Unsolved Mysteries is my guilty TV watching pleasure, but I read New Scientist with pride

Journalism in the areas of crime, the supernatural and miscellaneous weird stuff are not my usual choices in reading or viewing, at least not in the daytime, but there’s nothing more fascinating than a mystery, except for a clever solution to a mystery. One interesting aspect of this compelling TV show from the United States, which is generally broadcast late at night around the weekend, is that every episode of Unsolved Mysteries involves facial recognition as the solution or an important element of the story’s mystery. Other types of visual recognition can be an important feature in the narratives. One episode of the show recently broadcast in Australia was a murder mystery in which a police officer who had just investigated a murder later attended the home of the victim’s girlfriend who had disappeared. Just by chance the police officer looked into a linen closet and noticed in there pillow-slips with a fabric design which matched the sheet that had been found wrapped around the boyfriend’s body. I’ll bet that’s a variety of visual recognition that the scientists haven’t named yet.

While catching up with reading some back issues of New Scientist magazine today I came across another story about a criminal conviction that resulted from some very sharp soft-furnishing fabric design recognition skills on the part of an American law-enforcement officer. It’s not a nice story, not nice at all, but at least there’s some inspiration to be found in the good people using technology to fight the vile crime of child sexual abuse. An investigator at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noticed that among the countless horrible images received at the NCMEC two were of girls of a similar age on what looked like the same bedspread of a distinctive appearance. I have no idea how the police trace these things, but the locations where that style of bedspread were sold were identified, and this was the clue that led to the identification of the children and the criminal. Google have developed for the NCMEC software designed to achieve similar feats of visual object recognition as the investigator’s human visual recognition of the bedspread. It is hoped that the automation of the identification of items of interior decoration in images of child abuse will help to solve more crimes. Of course, the NCMEC also works to identify the child victims of crime themselves, in the Child Victim Identification Program. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are partners in the NCMEC’s Technology Coalition, and the application of technology to the task of identification is viewed as the only way to deal with the increasing volume of pornographic material submitted to the NCMEC every year.

Unsolved Mysteries   http://www.unsolved.com/

Peter Aldhous Fighting online child porn. New Scientist. April 9th 2011. p.23-24. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21028075.000-automating-the-hunt-for-child-pornographers.html

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (US)  http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PublicHomeServlet?

Are the flashbacks that are an element of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a troublesome variety of synaesthesia and/or related to the Tetris effect?

I’m going to explain why I think this question is worth considering.

I have recently been reading a most interesting book that has been descibed as a “medical memoir”. I have read that the fiction writer Siri Hustvedt has mirror-touch synaesthesia, and I was rather interested in reading about that, but the main topic of Hustvedt’s book The Shaking Woman is her search for an explanation for her seizure-like shaking episodes that are triggered by public speaking.

One thing that I’ve noted is that both Siri and her late father have experienced PTSD-type flashbacks of traumatic memories (warfare, car accident). Like myself, Siri Hustvedt has also experienced the Tetris effect, which is like PTSD flashbacks in that it is an involuntary experience of a visual memory. I don’t experience the Tetris effect much these days, but when I do it is typically in response to a full day of weeding or some other outdoor repetitive work. I don’t think scientists know how common the Tetris effect is, and if it is a thing that everyone experiences then it wouldn’t mean a thing that the novelist and I both experience it. I have at least one other close blood relative who has also experienced the Tetris effect quite a few times. The Tetris effect operates through an unknown memory system, possibly related to procedural memory, according to the Wikipedia. I would think that the Tetris effect would have some type of visual memory system as its basis. It is interesting that Hustvedt’s mysterious shaking episodes were dampened-down but not completely cured by the drug propranolol, which (according to the book) is also used to treat high blood pressure, migraine, performance anxiety and PTSD. Hustvedt seems to have a lot of whatever mechanism is the basis of PTSD, which I guess might be a very strong or hyperconnected visual memory system in her brain. I would think this system is also probably responsible for the Tetris effect. Another reason to believe that the Tetris effect and PTSD operate in the same brain system is that a study described in the Wikipedia found that playing a Tetris-like video game soon after a traumatic event “….reduces the number of flashbacks that are experienced afterwards”. I guess a specific memory system becomes overloaded with memories if the game is used as preventative treatment, so less of the traumatic memories can be encoded properly for long-term storage.

Hustvedt and I have quite a few things in common. We are both synaesthetes, we have both experienced the Tetris effect, we have also both experienced and migraine headaches, and we have both apparently had brain-based experiences of involuntarily-retrieved visual memories. In her book Hustvedt did not spell out explicitly that her flashbacks included visual content, and she did mention the memory of sound, but I’m happy to assume that anything labelled as a “flashback” included visual content. My involuntarily-retrieved visual memories are two different types of synaesthesia which I’ve experienced which trigger visual memories of scenes or a face. Hustvedt’s shaking episodes are like synaesthesia in that they have a very specific trigger (public speaking) and a very specific manifestation (violent body tremors without apparent anxiety, or under the influence of propranolol, an “electric buzz” quiver throughout the body).

There seem to be a lot of things here that are inter-connected. My experiences of my fine-motor->visual memories of scenes synaesthesia and The Strange Phenomenon, which is I believe a hybrid of face recognition and synaesthesia in which seeing one face under very specific conditions triggers an involuntary experience of a very old memory of the face of another person, show that synaesthesia concurrents or triggered additional sensory experiences can be in some ways similar to PTSD flashbacks, but without any accompanying psychological distress. My fine-motor-triggered visual memories are very subtle and hardly noticeable, while the face memory evoked in The Strange Phenomenon is more of an intrusion into ordinary consciousness. I’d like to put forward the theory that the flashbacks of PTSD (and not any of the other distressing features of PTSD) are synaesthesia concurrents that just happen to be distressing visual or sensory memories. I guess they must have some type of trigger, and I guess could be something purely sensory, very subtle or ordinary. I have never experienced PTSD myself, probably because I have fortunately never been in the type of extremely traumatic situation that causes this psychological syndrome, so I can only guess at what PTSD flashbacks are really like from what I’ve read. Are PTSD flashbacks the result of a type of synaesthesia that can manifest as quite a subtle experience, but are only troublesome or exceptional because of the very unpleasant nature of the memories evoked? Are synaesthetes more likely to develop PTSD if exposed to trauma than non-synaesthetes exposed to equivalent situations? It’s just a theory!

Wikipedia contributors Tetris effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tetris_effect&oldid=448999724

The Shaking Woman. The Book Show. Radio National. April 22 2010.  http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2010/2878610.htm

Reflections on The Strange Phenomenon, how I gunned the CFMT, letter personification in advertising and clue to a possible cure for some cases of prosopagnosia after reading an old journal paper

(this article added to on August 10th 2011)

I thought that I’d read pretty much everything that there was available to read  about face recognition testing, but I had overlooked the 2006 journal paper by Duchaine and Nakayama published in the journal Neuropsychologia which validated the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). This short paper has been well worth a look. I’ve found quite a few things in this paper that have provoked much thought and added to my understanding of The Strange Phenomenon, including some most fascinating information about one of the study subjects, a male who was supposedly a prosopagnosic but who employed an interesting trick that enabled him to get a score in the normal range in the CFMT. The Strange Phenomenon is a type of synesthesia that involves face recognition which I have experienced in the past. I have fully described this phenomenon in the first posting in this blog “A Most Peculiar Experience”.

In the introduction to the paper there is a reminder of why the CFMT is such a good test of an ability as it is used in everyday life, and a reminder of the processes that give rise to face recognition. “Because the test will measure face memory, performance on the test will depend on both perceptual mechanisms and memory.” “However, face memory, not face perception, is the ability that determines our success in identity recognition in everyday life, and so it is especially important to measure it.” So, memory is an essential element of this ability. Given that there is a general belief that synaesthesia is somehow linked with superior memory, we perhaps should not be surprised to find a connection between synaesthesia and superior face memory ability, as is measured in with CFMT. The fact that memory is an element of face recognition perhaps explains the clunky, abrupt nature of The Strange Phenomenon. Like other types of synaesthesia, there is a definite moment when it “kicks in”, and you can never be sure exactly when it will “kick in” till it does, even though one knows what conditions trigger it. Memory works like this too. Memories can be retrieved in an unpredictable, triggered, abrupt and uncontrollable or hard-to-control process. Similarities between some types of synaesthesia, memory and The Strange Phenomenon are obvious. I believe that these are all “threshold phenomena”.

On page 582 I’ve discovered a detail which was discovered in the study that is written up in this paper which possibly helps to explain one of the requisite characteristics of the trigger of The Strange Phenomenon. The Strange Phenomenon violates what is possibly a universal feature of face recognition that is found in prosopagnosics, normal controls viewing upright faces and also normal controls viewing inverted faces. This feature is a slightly better performance at identifying faces from front views compared to side views. In contrast, The Strange Phenomenon generally requires a side view (from around a 45 degree angle) as the trigger for the automatic recognition of the apparent facial similarity between John* and Jean*. I take this as evidence pointing towards probable reasons why The Strange Phenomenon requires a side view – that it is the only view in which the two adults of different genders, John and Jean, look similar, and/or that a side view is the only view that gives an integrated visual understanding of John’s, (and maybe Jean’s), distinctive flat face. It appears a general superiority of a 45 degree view of faces for the purpose of recognition is not the reason why The Strange Phenomenon requires a view from this angle. I find this surprising, but I can still think of a possible reason why a full-face view is best for face recognition – because it is the view that gives the greatest “feel” of social interaction, and a “feeling” of social interaction enhances or gives rise to face recognition. Which brings me to the most interesting find in this paper…..

Reading through the paper one gets the impression that the CFMT is a better test of real-life face recognition ability than the older tests that it is compared to. In general the CFMT appears to prevent prosopagnosics from getting a score that falsely indicates normal ability by using strategies that don’t involve actual face recognition, but out of the eight prosopagnosics in the study there is still the problem that two prosopagnosics, (given the anonymous names of F41 and M57 in this study, the letter denoting gender and the number denoting age at time of testing) scored within two standard deviations of the mean, which is judged to be within the normal range. F41’s score was pretty low, but prosopagnosic M57’s score really required an explanation because it was only just below the mean score for the normal control subjects. How did M57 do it? M57 was asked. His cool trick was a deliberate strategy, but not really a cheat. He explained that he “…intentionally attempted to “lust” after the faces rather than simply memorize them.” This is rather amusing considering that M57 is a male and all of the faces in the CFMT are of men’s faces. This strategy wasn’t just some wild idea that M57 dreamed up – he was a veteran of face recognition testing, and M57 was testing a theory that he had formulated about his own performance in such tests. His theory is apparently supported by evidence that attractive faces are better remembered than unattractive faces. M57’s deliberate attempts to add emotional content to the plain colourless pictures of faces during the encoding/memorizing of these images appears to have been very effective. I guess in employing this strategy he was recruiting parts of the brain to the task that wouldn’t have otherwise been drawn into the job of memorizing faces. Was M57 using a simple type of emotional arousal to boost the connectivity of his brain during this testing? Did this temporary enhancement of brain connectivity bridge his impoverished connections between brain regions that normally make face recognition difficult for him by isolating the various parts of the brain that need to work together during successful face recognition? This theory sounds like the opposite of synaesthesia, and there is evidence that many agnosias, including some but not all cases of prosopagnosia, are caused by under-connected brains. It is a well-accepted observation that there is an association between emotion and synaesthesia. Music is an experience that appears to be a particularly powerful trigger for both emotions and synaesthesia. According to what I’ve read there appears to be evidence that there are generally two different types of problem that give rise to prosopagnosia – some prosopagnosics simply have damage to a specific part of the brain that “does” face recognition (the fusiform face area I guess), while for possibly most prosopagnosics the problem lies in poor connections between different parts of the brain, resulting in faces being recognized unconsciously, with clues that can be detected by researchers, but the person is not conscious of the recognition because their under-connected brain fails to relay this information to the parts of the brain that “do” conscious thought.

When I read about M57’s effective strategy I was fascinated because it seems to have a lot in common with my own naturally-employed strategy for success in the CFMT, in which I have gotten perfect scores more than once. When I did the CFMT test I would very quickly imagine a character or personality based on the appearance of the face when I encoded the face, dreaming up a different character for each face. I would wildly interpret individual features of the face, and the overall mood and character of the face. Plumpness in the cheeks interpreted as evidence of an impulsive character. Large eyes with an anxious-looking mouth was taken as evidence of a sensitive and intellectual personality. I knew this was fanciful, but it worked very effectively. Using this personification strategy made it easy to tell the difference between faces that I had previously seen and newly-presented faces, because I felt that I “knew” some of the people pictured while others were still strangers to me. There is a simple explanation of why the use of personification in the encoding the memories of faces/personalities is such an easy and natural process for me. Ordinal linguistic personification (OLP) is one of the many different types of synaesthesia that I have. OLP is a type of synaesthesia in which individual items in ordered sequences such as letters, numbers or days of the week are associated with individual personalities. Like grapheme->colour synaesthesia it has its origins in early childhood and the associations are pretty much fixed for life.

Perhaps you are thinking that ordinal linguistic personification sounds like pretty crazy stuff that seems so irrational that it surely couldn’t be useful and couldn’t be associated with useful abilities. I would argue that a brain that can “do” OLP is a brain that is richly connected to cultural, personal and linguistic associations by virtue of the fact that it is physically very inter-connected. It is possibly a brain that has a natural talent for learning languages and learning to read (two talents that are found in my family). Do you believe that the letters of the alphabet are nothing more than graphemes (basic written language symbols) that are associated with phonemes (a most basic unit of sound in a language)? Is your thinking really as limited as that? The letters of the alphabet and other graphemes such as numbers, Oriental characters and punctuation marks can have many types of properties. They clearly have shapes and sounds. In some minds they can also have colours, genders, ages, personalities and physical orientations (facing left, right or to the front). Some graphemes resemble faces, and many of them look like stick figures in different poses, poses which can be highly expressive of emotion or personality. Can’t you see the letter E’s big smile as he faces toward the right? Don’t you think the letters K and Y look so happy waving their arms about? The letter H is a bit of a frump with her square body and legs that are rather far apart, wouldn’t you say? I’ve always thought Mr S was a bit of a snake, while letter M and number 1 stand straight and resolute. Have you ever seen the 1940s cult classic movie The Curse of the Cat People? It isn’t as bad as the title suggests, in fact it could be described as a perceptive exploration of hidden and forgotten aspects of an introverted childhood, a world of imaginary friends and playing among nature and personification synaesthesia. When the ghostly Irena teaches young Amy how to write the numbers 1 and 2, she personifies them by making reference to the resemblance of the graphemes’ shapes to human figures “One is like a tall princess. A princess? Of course! And two is the prince who kneels before her on one knee. Yes? Yes! The prince! That’s right. This is more fun than just numbers. Of course!” (Irena hugs Amy). Personification is a funny little brain trick that makes learning how to write and recognize graphemes more fun, and it also appears to be an aid to learning how to recognize faces.

Letters of the alphabet can have associations with the names of people who have a first name that begins with that letter. In my own ordinal linguistic personification all of the letters that are the first letter of a close family member’s name have genders and personalities that are the same or similar to the family member. The first letter of my own name is pretty much a reflection of my own (possibly inaccurate) self-concept when I was a young girl. Letters of the alphabet can also have associations with words that start with that letter, and the phonemes that are linked with graphemes can have sound symbolism. In my OLP the letter M is a motherly type of personality. She is a “Mum’s lipstick” type of colour. I don’t think there is yet any scientific consensus as to why the word for “mother” has a “ma” or “mam” sound  in so many different languages, but sound symbolism is often offered as an explanation. A recent article about sound symbolism in language in New Scientist magazine explicitly linked sound symbolism with synaesthesia and the “bouba-kiki effect”. Sound symbolism in language is possibly a universal and innate feature of human psychology. Research indicates that sound symbolism patterns are recognised by young children and adults across cultures, but more research needs to be done to confirm this. I do not think it is a stretch to propose that there is a connection between my mother-personality OLP synaesthesia for the letter M and a universal sound symbolism in language that is somehow based on synaesthesia.

In my mind the letters K, R and Y all have vital, positive, outgoing, young adult, powerful personifications (two male and one female) and have grapheme->colour associations with bright colours. I believe this is because these letters have physical shapes that resemble human stick figures in dynamic poses, with K and R standing with legs apart and K with her arms raised, as are the letter Y’s arms. Does the letter R have one hand on one hip? He certainly has tickets on himself, don’t you think? In my mind the letter Y is a man in his prime of life who has a cheerful personality and is associated with an obnoxiously bright yellow colour. I find it easy to imagine him as an Indian Bhangra dancer with his arms joyously raised to the skies, leaping about in a manful manner. Contrast these dynamic letters with the letter C. It seems to be no coincidence that the words “curled” and “caring” both start with letter C, with all of the associated connotations of passivity, gentleness and introversion. In my mind the letter C is a quiet, caring and young female personality and the associated colour is a pale mauvey-pink.

Do you still believe that letters are nothing more than graphemes which are associated with phonemes? There has got to be something seriously wrong with your brain if you do! Tell me, which letters out of C, K, R and Y would you consider hiring to help you to move house, if they were people? I’d only hire the letter C to help pack fragile items and comfort the pets, and I’d be wary of the letter Y being distracted by chatter and dancing and not getting on with the work. I believe it is no coincidence that the letter R is the only letter that I have seen personified in an advertising logo for a removalist company’s logo (see links below). I have also seen some most dynamic letters K and Y personified in advertising items such as a movie poster and a company logo. Ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia cannot be dismissed as crazy stuff. I believe all capable advertising professionals must have a good working understanding of personification and other types of synaesthesia, either conscious or unconscious, as explicit synaesthetes or as “normal people” with well-connected minds and well-developed cultural-sensory sensitivities. I also believe that personification is the trick that was used by myself (a mutliple synaesthete who naturally personifies letters)  and possibly also by the male prosopagnosic study subject M57 to enhance our performances in the CFMT to unexpected levels (M57 into the normal range and me into the super-recognizer range). I believe such personification recruits parts of the brain that are normally used for social functioning to the simple task of face recognition, and this somehow enhances performance.

I believe that another personality-related type of synaesthesia can give some clues about solving the mystery of The Strange Phenomenon. I’ve recently been reading some personal first-hand accounts of coloured personality synaesthesias – synaesthesia experiences which can look like coloured “auras” around people’s faces or bodies. I have also read about one very interesting case of coloured facial expression synaesthesia in chapter three of the book The Tell-Tale Brain by V. S. Ramachandran. I find this stuff most interesting for many reasons. We are reminded that the trigger or stimuli or “inducer” in this type of synaesthesia does not fit the usual stereotypes of synaesthesia, because the trigger is not simple and is not purely sensory, but is highly psychological and highly social and highly personal. Clearly non-sensory parts of the brain are involved. The trigger is the expressed personality of another person, or to be completely correct, the synaesthete’s perception of the personality of another person. First-hand accounts of coloured personality synaesthesia make it clear that it is the synaesthete’s beliefs about the personalities of others that are the triggers. For example, some coloured personality synaesthetes report that they experience simple correspondences between personality traits and single colours in people that they don’t know very well, but for people whom they know very well no colours are experienced. It has been theorized that the lack of colouration of personalities that are well known is the result of over-complexity or too much knowledge of a person’s personality. When we first meet a person, only the most dominant or obvious personality traits might be clearly perceived, while the many-faceted personality of a person who is well-known might look like a mess of colours if all the personality traits have a colour, or perhaps the colours might cancel each other out to nothing. What does this have to do with The Strange Phenomenon? I think this stuff serves as a reminder that there could be more to this phenomenon than simple visual (face) processing and memory with synaesthesia connections, in the trigger or in the experience triggered. I’m sure that the fusiform face area is involved in this phenomenon, but I can only guess what other parts of my brain might be involved with this trick. Coloured personality synaesthesia reminds us that things as complex and as social as personality traits and perceptions of personality traits can be involved with synaesthesia. In The Strange Phenomenon it most certainly felt to me as though the experience triggered was not just a picture of Jean’s face, but was a memory of Jean’s embodied and voiced personality. I still do not understand why this near-stranger, this face-in-the-crowd should be so memorable to me. I have many theories, but this mystery is unlikely to ever be solved. Coloured personality synaesthesia is also a reminder of how subjective synaesthesia can be. Whether or not another person is coloured can depend on how well known they are to the synaesthete. The synaesthete’s social understanding can clearly have a big influence upon this type of synaesthesia. It is perfectly possible that my perceptions of the personalities involved in The Strange Phenomenon could play a major part in this phenomenon. Once again, I have theories about this, but no real understanding. Perhaps this is what is so interesting about Jean. There is nothing more fascinating than a mystery.

* not their real names

References

Duchaine, Brad & Nakayama, Ken The Cambridge Face Memory Test: Results for neurologically intact individuals and an investigation of its validity using inverted face stimuli and prosopagnosic participants. Neuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585.
http://visionlab.harvard.edu/members/ken/Ken%20papers%20for%20web%20page/137neuropsychologiaDuchaine2006.pdf

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

Robson, David Kiki or bouba? In search of language’s missing link. New Scientist. Issue 2821 19 July 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128211.600-kiki-or-bouba-in-search-of-languages-missing-link.html

Letter personification links:

Wikipedia contributors Ordinal linguistic personification. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ordinal_linguistic_personification&oldid=411966125

Web page showing the logo for the Kambo’s company which includes a physically dynamic personification of the letter K:

http://boldbranding.com.au/Logo-Design

Web page showing the logo for the Removal Man company which includes a physically dynamic personification of the letter R:

http://www.removalists-perth.com.au/

Web page showing a poster for a movie with a title that starts with the letter Y which includes a physically dynamic and joyful pose of a man in the shape of the letter Y:

http://www.impawards.com/2008/yes_man.html

Web page showing a photo of a colourfully-dressed male Bhangra dancer in a typically joyful and physically dynamic letter Y pose:

http://www.cilco.co.uk/stock-photos/respect-2006/bhangra-dancer-red.htm

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.

References

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
http://psychology.stanford.edu/~jlm/pdfs/MartinAnnRevPsych07.pdf

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

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=55948823003#!/photo.php?fbid=1339919704060&set=o.55948823003&type=1&theater

Reference

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

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=55948823003

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

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&gid=64173396775

I’v been terrorised by “MAD DOG”

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=100183776716076

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

The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome?

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript February 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Most Peculiar Experience

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

 

The Strange Phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alternative ways of categorizing the strange phenomenon/competing explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the phenomenon Synaesthesia?

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

Why do you ask and answer your own questions?

I’m not sure, but it works for me.

 

Some explanations that I believe are NOT applicable

Some type of delusional misidentification syndrome (DMS)

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

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

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

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

A visual disturbance or vision defect

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

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

Hallucination

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

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

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

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

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

 Wikipedia article titled “Hallucination”

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

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

Psychosis

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

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

Recreational drug effects

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

Epilepsy (including reflex epilepsy)

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

Migraine Aura

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

Illness, fever, sleep deprivation, fatigue, delirium

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

Religious or supernatural “vision”

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

 

References and recommended reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Face recognition tests

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

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

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

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