Monday, June 7, 2010

Strangers in the Mirror

Our second World Science Festival event took place on Friday evening at Hunter College (at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Theatre - Isn't that nice that they are remembered in this way) focused on people who suffer from prosopagnosia - the inability to recognize faces. Both the neurologist Oliver Sacks and the super-realist painter Chuck Close suffer from an extreme form of this disability. In fact, the title of this event - Strangers in the Mirror - comes from Sacks' fairly common experience of failing to recognize himself when he looks in a mirror. Or, in another fascinating case, thinking he saw himself reflected in a window when it was really someone else.

With the always witty Robert Krulwich moderating a conversation between Close and Sacks, we learned that these two very accomplished people sometimes cannot recognize the faces of people with whom they are intimate and that only with repeated encounters can they finally discern with confidence a particular face. In Sacks' case, he also cannot recognize places and before he lived in New York City (where the grid system helps him get around), he often got lost just trying to get home.

As interesting as all of this turned out to be, it was their strategies for compensating for this disability that proved especially intriguing and encouraging. Close, it turns out, while naturally an introvert, makes a special effort to go out a lot and to be with people and to be as open to others and as convivial with them as possible. He has found that the best way for him to be comfortable with others is to actively seek them out and not to let the lack of face or name recognition get in the way of enjoying being with people and getting to know their stories.

Sacks seems much more resigned to living a kind of solitary life. He avoids being with a lot of people, it appears, because the difficulties and embarrassment associated with not being able to recall faces is too painful. He does better with voices, and has found that speaking on the telephone is a kind of compensation for the face recognition problem. He also appears to get a great deal of pleasure from spending time with a very small circle of friends whom he has gotten to know very well.

As Robert Krulwich summed up the evening, both men were pleased to be part of this event to share the phenomenon of prosopagnosia with the general public and thereby to lessen the stigma associated with this condition. All in all, the whole thing was motivated by the admirable and hopeful goal of helping everyone become somewhat more compassionate and understanding about a difficult and complex disability.

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