In which the syndrome of prosopagnosia demonstrates and exacerbates the problem of finding a photograph that represents the true identity of an older person.
Identity complications of prosopagnosia
Around 2 per cent of people have a brain abnormality known informally as face blindness, and I’m one of them. Either I was born that way or it happened when I got concussion at the age of seven or eight. You probably won’t spot this (apart from thinking I’m a bit weird or rude sometimes), because most of us can cover up with fancy footwork. We refrain from using your name. We use other cues like your hair, clothes, context, and voice to figure out who you are. (Paying close attention to facial detail is useless, even counterproductive.)
Moderate prosopagnasia is not a life-wrecker. Sure, movies, videos and TV can be confusing because everyone looks the same — like potatoes in a bucket. But only rarely have I failed to recognise a husband or son or sister, and many people do kindly tell me their names. So I can live with it.
What if you can’t recognize your own face?
It’s my own face that causes me the most trouble. As a child I would stare in the mirror and struggle to see what made my face any different from all the other faces in my world.
Nowadays I recognise various skin cancer scars and also my jawline from certain angles, which is progress. But in my seventies my face is changing again.
How can I be who I am when I don’t recognize my own face?
Three selfies: three strangers
I took all three of the photos in this post yesterday morning. I haven’t touched anything except the colour.
Although it’s hard to tell other people apart, I know they are not all the same person. I can count, you see. And in a cruel twist, these three selfies look like three different people. Which one is me?
- A half-awake, swollen eyed, lopsided, puffy faced but moderately cheerful old woman?
- An intensely wrinkled dried up depressed terrifying old crone with no bones in her face?
- A wide awake woman upright and on the move?
I have no idea what other people see when they look at me — and I’m less and less sure it matters.
The aging of identity
I think I’ve spent enough time contemplating who I am (outwardly) and how to be me.
It’s quite difficult enough to do this existential acrobatic trick subjectively. And if I attempted to imagine how other people might see my face, my selfies and my avatars, that would well and truly do my head in.
Please Sergeant Major, may I stop now?