Monday, 21 January 2008

Who on earth was that?

I'm trying to resist turning the heat up. It was a -27 (Celsius) wind chill last time I checked, but I have an LL Bean fleecy button-up. The only trouble is my right hand keeps freezing up when I work on the computer mouse for any length of time. There must be a heck of a cold spot on the right side of the house.

When I left grade school and entered community college to do my first year of university, I began to notice a strange phenomenon. People would approach me on a street corner and strike up a conversation (a very common occurrence in Victoria, which is a relatively small city), and I couldn't tell who they were. They evidently knew me, but I didn't recognize them. Concealing my embarrassment, I would insert friendly little inquiries into the conversation, in the desperate hope that these would yield clues: "So, how's ..... school...? Oh, really? How about work?" This only got worse as the years went by, and I would try to place these garrulous friendly strangers. Were they classmates? Students? Workmates? Someone from church? Which church? Mine or my husband's? Of course, then we moved to Ottawa and it was game over. My life was filled with superficial acquaintances. (Ottawans don't have relationships; they network.) I couldn't seem to recognize anybody.

The year after younger daughter was identified as having severe learning/developmental challenges, I haunted Yahoo forums for leads, and found one that seemed to apply to myself: prosopagnosia, also known as face-blindness. People with severe prosopagnosia can't even recognise family members, but a milder form might be my problem. Things began to fall in place. The fact I didn't notice this difficulty until I left grade school where I saw the same people every day. The fact that I had a thing for photography, and coped with social situations by being the self-appointed recorder of events. I took copious pictures of my ESL students and kept photos in their files. (If I have a photo of someone, I can usually remember who they are.) Even back in elementary school, I have a memory of standing with my bike at the top of the hill that stood between my school and my home, looking back into the valley that led to the Trans-Canada Highway. I saw a figure at the bottom of the hill and thought to myself: "There's Robbie Wilson." Then I stopped myself: "How do I know that?" I realized that I'd identified him by his walk, and it dawned on me that I recognized the boys at my school by their walks, and the girls by their clothes. (I also made the odd discovery that boys with dramatically different personalities often had similar walks. I have no idea of the significance of this, if any.)

Prosopagnosia. It explained everything. So, this past week The Globe and Mail had an article on it with a link to, which features three quizzes. I think I took the quiz on famous faces when I first learned about face-blindness, and of course, did really well. No surprises there. Photo-graphs. Pic-tures. Snap-snap, click-click, say no more. (That's a Monty Python reference, for you innocents out there.) But the other two quizzes feature just strangers' faces, so I eagerly signed up, saying I believed I have "quite a bit" of difficulty with identifying faces. My percentile rank on identifying upright adult faces was 55 (I got 87% correct; the average is 85%). My percentile rank on identifying upright children's faces was 80. (93%; average is 83% - a particular shock as I cannot identify either older or younger daughter's schoolmates, particularly the boys.) I got a 45 percentile on inverted children's faces, but apparently everyone has difficulty with that. The final blow: I got 85% on the Cambridge Face Recognition Test.

So what is my problem? Am I just antisocial and rude? It's true that I found the tests rather stressful, and did a lot of guessing, but that's pretty well me in any social situation. Dammit, I'm still claiming prosopagnosia as my shield and salvation. Besides, it's a mighty impressive word. Gotta love those Greek roots...

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