You’re standing on the middle of the dance floor of a crowded nightclub, a rather large crowded nightclub. Your friends have deserted you, more or less – they’ve found more interesting people, likely of the opposite sex, with whom to gyrate in time with the pounding, throbbing, and unnecessarily loud music. It’s dark, but the strobe lights are blinding. You scan the throngs of people mingling around you for a familiar face, but each one is twisted by the irregular flashes of light, and even by the boom of the bass thumping through your chest. Are these people real? Have I had too much to drink? Why do they all look so unrecognisable? Am I going crazy?
Would that experience cause you any level of anxiety? Being stuck among a field of faces you don’t recognise? Alone in a crowd, so to speak? Some of you are thinking this is a silly thing to be anxious about, and while others are nodding their heads wildly, some are perhaps even feeling a little sympathetic tension on top.
That scenario isn’t altogether uncommon among people who undertake such activities. But it’s usually the kind of thing that’s easily reconciled either by finding one of those aforementioned friends among the crowd, or by leaving. But what if that experience – of always being alone in a crowd of not just unfamiliar faces, but unrecognisable faces – was something you could never escape? Even if you were in a roomful of friends or family?
You might think I’m talking about some exaggerated social anxiety disorder, and while that would be a fitting diagnosis, I’m actually referring to something far worse: Prosopagnosia.
Also known as face-blindness, prosopagnosia is a serious neurological condition that causes faces, all faces, to become unrecognisable. Your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, coworkers, anyone who might be part of your life suddenly looks, to your eyes, like a complete stranger. Not only that, but each time you encounter them, they have a different face yet! Even your own reflection betrays you every time you look in the mirror. I bet that crowded dancefloor is taking on a whole new meaning to you, isn’t it?
Now, what’s described above is one of the worst possible stages of the condition, of which there are several. Among the two distinct versions of prosopagnosia, acquired and congenital, it’s difficult to decide which would be a worse fate. Never, from birth, to know a person by their face (which may not be something you can readily imagine), or to wake up one day, likely after a severe head injury, and be surrounded by complete strangers with familiar voices, names, and mannerisms…all of whom insist they know you well.
Yeah, that’s probably enough to drive a person mad on the spot.
As I said though, these examples sit on the extreme end of the condition’s spectrum. Between both points there are less severe levels, where perhaps, some faces remain recognisable, or parts of some faces. Or perhaps faces you should know but aren’t well acquainted with (someone you’ve only met a few times for instance) are all that remain unclear.
It might interest you to know that one of the most recognisable faces in the world today has this very problem. Though officially undiagnosed, actor/producer Brad Pitt claims to suffer from face-blindness to the point that he can only rarely recognise faces outside of his immediate family. There are other notable names associated with the condition, like Jane Goodall, Nobel Laureate Paul Dirac, and neuroscientist Oliver Sacks.
These famous names, and the hit movie Faces in the Crowd , may offer an exaggerated view of the situation though. Prosopagnosia affects only about 2.5 percent of the population, or somewhere near 175 million people world-wide, which is actually much higher than was historically thought.
There is no cure, no treatment, no medication to offset the symptoms. Sufferers are sometimes trained through a rehabilitation program, to learn to identify people based on characteristics other than facial features – a task much more difficult than you may yet realise – but that learning process serves to highlight just how important facial recognition is for humanity (and likely other animals as well). The brain regions affected – the inferior occipital area, the fusiform gyrus, and the anterior temporal cortex – all of which play key roles in spatial/object recognition processes, are now the star players in the centuries old search for understanding how and why facial structures play such an important role in social identity and familial relations. That we have whole brain structures like the fusiform gyrus, the sole purpose of which is to manage facial recognition, says unambiguously that we would not be who or what we are if we had not developed this ability eons ago. It may even speak to a stronger need to develop such skills in artificial intelligence systems if we intend for them to emulate us.
Those familiar with UFOlogy, ghost hunting, and many other anomalous studies are certainly familiar with the term pareidolia (at least they should be). While not a neurological condition, but more a feature of our perceptual psychology, pareidolia is what allows us, or rather causes us to see faces where they don’t actually exist. The Mars Face is a good example, as are the Heikegani crabs of Edo Bay, Japan.
In the former case, a mountainous rise of surface material in the Cydonia region on Mars was photographed by the Viking 1 orbiter in July of 1976. Light conditions on the surface at the time just happened to cast a very specific pattern of shadows over the mountain, and visible only from directly above, that looks, admittedly, very much like an alien face. For years people have argued over the origin of that face, some claiming that it’s an actual alien monument or carving, others claiming that an ancient race of humans had already visited the red planet and left their mark. The real reason is, of course, pareidolia. We see the face because our brains are programmed to see them.
The Heikegani crabs are a slightly different story, but the answer is precisely the same. Of course, the reason we humans experience pareidolia, and indeed, what pareidolia actually is, has also long been a subject of heated debate. But these arguments, interesting as they may be, again serve to highlight the importance of object and/or facial recognition to our survival in a reality that includes visual stimulus; it clearly demonstrates the complexity of the human visual cortex
So, in honour of those who suffer from prosopagnosia, and all those afflicted with an overactive sense of pareidolia, when you look into the face of your loved ones tonight, try to appreciate how important that spark of recognition is to your relationship.