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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Do I Know You?

I knew that one of these days, if I was good and ate all my spinach, I too would be diagnosed with an obscure medical syndrome which would entitle me to big gobs of sympathy. I was hoping for money, but I'll take sympathy in small denominations.

People with the disorder, which can lead to severe social problems, lack sufficient wiring in the part of the brain that recognizes faces..."You see faces like everyone else, but when it comes time for recall there's nothing really there," said ["faceblindness" sufferer Eliane] Scheib...

I do this all the time, and it's embarrassing. I can't recognize faces. I couldn't recognize Niles in the Honolulu airport ("Look at that idiot! Why's he waving like that? He can't be drowning here in the term---Oh! Niles!") In 1999 I had surgery, and the next day a pretty young woman in blue jeans came into my hospital room. She gave me a wonderful smile, and I thought, "She looks nice. I wonder who she is." She said something to me and it took me a few seconds to realize that she was my doctor. Not some specialist I'd only met once, but the same doctor I'd been seeing every few weeks for months. I joked that I hadn't recognized her without her doctor suit on, but it wasn't a joke.

I try to get by with remembering people by their sex, hair color, height, body type, etc. In my first year of grad school the guy in charge of labs (who also directed us lab TAs) and one of my professors were both tallish guys with a medium build and gray hair. I was terrified of getting them mixed up, and only felt secure talking to them in their offices. I was always afraid of finding them both together, and not remembering which was which! After a while I got to be able to tell them apart, and eventually it was a wonder to me that I ever confused them.

In my last job there were three women students, all with dark hair. I apologized to them in advance, saying that it would take me a while to get them straightened out. After some months it occurred to me that one of them was about 5'8", and another was 5'3".[1] There was also a tall thin young man with dyed purple hair, John. I was glad to meet him, because I knew I could always recognize him by his hair. The next time I saw him he'd dyed his hair a different color. And his name turned out to be Michael.

My own personal nightmare is that I'll be the only witness to a crime: "And do you see that man in the courtroom today?" "Um, he could be the defendant. Or Juror No. 4. Or the man in the gray suit in the back of the room. Or the judge."

The article also says that there's one face everyone recognizes: Bill Clinton. Or, maybe not.

[1]This reminds me of an ancient joke, told to me as a "Pollack" joke. Two guys were having trouble telling their horses apart, so one put a notch in his horse's ear. This worked for a while, but then the other horse caught his ear on fence barb, and they couldn't tell them apart again. Then the second guy bobbed his horse's tail -- and this worked until the other horse got its tail caught in a gate, and it was shortened. So finally they measured the horses, and found that the black horse was two inches taller than the white horse, and afterwards they had no trouble.