“I make the face into a landscape. And I journey across that landscape like Gulliver’s Lilliputians, crawling over the face of a giant, not knowing, that they were on the face of a giant.” – Chuck Close.
Chuck Close is an American painter, famous for his intimate portraits. Up close his work is made up of small, abstract shapes; each one an individual painting. From a distance they become portraits, faces rendered in incredible detail. Chuck Close makes his living painting faces – but he is also face blind.
Face blindness or prosopagnosia is a neurological quirk which affects a person’s ability to recognise faces. At the mild end of the spectrum, someone with prosopagnosia may have difficulty recognising a familiar face, others may be unable to discriminate between faces, and at the more extreme end, may be unable to recognise their own face. An interesting feature of prosopagnosia is its specificity: a person with face blindness does not necessarily struggle with facial expressions, nor do they possess other memory deficits – they simply cannot recognise a face.
The condition most likely involves the fusiform gyrus, an area of the brain cortex associated specifically with facial recognition, and it may be congenital or brought on by injury. Very little is known about the condition or its cause, but recent evidence suggests that congenital face blindness may be more common than first thought. Prosopagnosia doesn’t affect a person’s ability to see, nor to remember things, and so it may go unnoticed as the person develops coping strategies. People with prosopagnosia rely heavily on cues such as gait or hairstyle to recognise people they know. Interestingly, Chuck Close says that when he looks at a flat picture of someone his memory is almost photographic whilst in person, the turn of a head could make someone unrecognisable.
For those of us who are face-recognisers there is nothing more comforting than spotting a friend’s face in a crowd and I found it difficult to comprehend how I would navigate a world filled with strangers. But after listening to the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks and Chuck Close talk about their experiences in Strangers in the mirror the World Science Festival (and on the RadioLab podcast The Soul Patch) I found myself wondering: what is it about faces that makes them stick in our minds?
According to recent research, the ability to recognise a face may be a more complex process than scientists thought. Prosopagnosia has shed new light on how facial recognition occurs in the brain, and it seems that our person-recognition systems may be dependent on both facial and voice recognition. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany looked at the brain activity of 19 healthy volunteers as they completed tasks, testing their ability to recognise faces and voices. They found that regions of the brain associated with facial recognition, like the fusiform face area in the occipital lobe, are linked to regions responsible for voice recognition, mostly in the temporal lobe. Agnosias, or aphasias like face-blindness which seem to affect such singular abilities, may in the end show us how inter-connected and inter-dependent our cognitive processes really are.
By Robyn Lambert
View Chuck Close’s amazing online gallery here.
Image credit: TimWilson