Monday, June 7, 2010

When Everyone Is a Stranger

"A face is too slight a foundation for happiness."
~ Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

On Friday night in the Kaye Playhouse at New York City's Hunter College, the World Science Festival brought together two extraordinary men for what turned out to be the most fascinating discussion I've ever witnessed.

Oliver Sacks (above) is almost certainly the world's best known neurologist. He has written ten books including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Anthropologist on Mars and Awakenings (Robin Williams played Dr. Sacks in the hit film version of Awakenings.) 

Chuck Close is one of the world's most celebrated portrait artists, known best for astonishing, wall-sized faces composed of intricate, mosaic-like cells of color. During my days as fine arts student, he was everyone's favorite substitute teacher — an engaging, outgoing man who always brought a sense of joy and adventure to the classroom. (The image below is a close-up of one of his self-portraits. The full painting appears later in this post.)

The title of Friday's event was "Strangers in the Mirror." The subject: face blindness (prosopagnosia), a condition both Dr. Sacks and Chuck Close have lived and struggled with daily since birth. Genial, well-prepared moderator Robert Krulwich (journalist, member of National Public Radio's Radio Lab team and expert in making scientific information intelligible to non-scientists) called it a "face-blind face-off." (For a neuroscientist's view of Friday night's discussion, click here to read Sam McDougle's article on the website The Beautiful Brain. ) 

At first I found it difficult to grasp what face blindness even means. To never recognize a loving look, a knowing glance, a fleeting smile from a friend — imagine it. Facial recognition is so important to human life that evolution has given us a brain area just for that purpose, and it begins gathering and processing information in infancy. But to a person with face blindness, faces are a meaningless jumble of parts. If seen every day for a long enough time, they may become familiar — but will only remain familiar if contact continues. To someone with face blindness, even the face in the mirror is unfamiliar.

"Our masks, always in peril of smearing or cracking, in need of continuous check in the mirror or silverware, keep us in thrall to ourselves, concerned with our surfaces."
~ Carolyn Kizer

Krulwich's masterful questioning led to often hilarious stories that clarified what it's like to be face blind. Dr. Sacks admitted that "Several times I have started to apologize to a mirror." He also recalled combing his beard before his reflection in a restaurant window...only to discover that his "reflection" was doing something else. The full, slapstick potential of face blindness came through in his tale of a dinner with another scientist, someone he'd never met. After enjoying each other's company and conversation for a couple of hours, the other man went to the men's room...and could not find his way back to the table. Amazingly, he, too, had face blindness and could not tell which of several men seated alone was Oliver Sacks; Dr. Sacks, meanwhile, could not tell which of several men looking around the room was his dinner companion. (Dr. Sacks said that up to 2% of the population probably suffers from significant face blindness.)

But face blindness seems to be limited to human faces. He said that while he cannot recognize his neighbors when they step into the elevator with him in his apartment building, he can recognize their dogs. Interestingly, both men have no problem recognizing objects.

Both Sacks and Close deal with multiple abnormalities. Dr. Sacks, for example, cannot find his way home unless he follows an orderly grid like the streets of New York City. And, after losing one eye to cancer, he had to learn to see in two-dimensions, which created some bizarre side effects. Chuck Close, on the other hand, has always closed one eye to see — otherwise, he has double-vision — but has no problem finding his way around. He said, "I feel like I'm flying over the city. I could draw a floor plan of every room I've ever been in. " 

Chuck Close has so many learning disabilities that at one point Krulwich said to him, "You're a wreck!" One example: He counts the dots on dominoes to add and subtract. He has also been paralyzed from the neck down since suffering a spinal artery collapse in 1988. These days he paints with a brush strapped to one wrist and travels in a remarkable, high-tech wheelchair created for him by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. 

A combination of openness about their condition and self-deprecating humor helps both men deal with the demands of a world in which friends and acquaintances expect to be recognized. As Close put it, he makes fun of himself "so people will cut me some slack."

Long before the incident he calls "the Event," face blindness led Close to develop specialized tools and coping mechanisms. In fact, he said, "I'm sure I was driven to paint portraits by face blindness." He talked about the notebook he began creating as an art teacher. Since he couldn't remember people's faces and also seems to have difficulty with names, he made a record of what people painted. Now, when former students ask him for recommendations, he consults his notebooks to decide what to say. 

As I watched Chuck Close speak, my mind kept returning to a particular day in art school that I have thought and talked about many times. Back then, neither I nor anyone else in my class knew he was face-blind. What happened was this: One day when he was filling in for sculptor Richard Serra, he announced we were going on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He gave us an assignment that was a lot of fun at the time and has come back to me over the years whenever I visit the museum. The assignment was this: find paintings with faces that look like people in the class. From now on, it will have a very different significance. 

Oliver Sacks has just completed a new book about face blindness and other vision problems titled The Mind's Eye; it will be published in late October. To see Dr. Sacks in action, click here to watch a segment of the PBS NOVA program "Musical Minds," which was inspired by another of his books, Musicophilia.

"The features of our face are hardly more than gestures which force of habit made permanent. Nature, like the destruction of Pompeii, like the metamorphosis of a nymph into a tree, has arrested us in an accustomed movement."
~ Marcel Proust


  1. Your vision and commentary usually add an appreciated dimension to my day.
    this one boggles the mind. i like the art school assignment and will find a way to put it to some good use.

  2. Thank you, Diane, and I agree, face blindness really is mind-boggling. Can't wait to read Dr. Sacks's new book. And have fun finding faces at the museum. It's a good game.

  3. Thanks for sharing the experience of the talk. I find it hard to process -- each time I read the words "face blind" I experience a cognitive disruption. I know that it means sometning', but I can't figure it out. On one had, you feel like there's a bigger lesson about identity and being human, but on the other hand you realize that the truly human story is how deeply these men who have had adapt and adjust every day of their lives are able to capture truths about e human spirit.

    Great quotes, too. Especially Proust. He believed that true understanding about our nature came from stitching together countless small impressions.

  4. Thank you both. Mark, I've seen Dr. Sacks speak probably half a dozen times, but never on anything so personal. This brought out a more relaxed and funny side. It was wonderful to see.

    drmstream, as I imagine was your intention, your comment about Proust could easily have been made about Chuck Close. And yes, both men are a lesson in the human spirit and its ability to adapt.

  5. What a wonderful and well-written piece! Thank you so much for re-sharing it, in light of the upcoming 60 minutes episode. I greatly admire Oliver Sacks.

  6. Thanks so much, Louise. That means a lot.