Special to the Mirror
MONTROSE–Montrose author Diane Winger offers an answer to a question that’s been in the news this past week: “What do Brad Pitt and Oliver Sachs have in common?”
The answer: Prosopagnosia. They are “face blind” — they find it very difficult to recognize faces. Winger is quite familiar with this difficult-to-pronounce term. She encountered it several years ago while trying to understand more about her own difficulties with facial recognition.
Actor Brad Pitt (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Fight Club,” and numerous other movie roles) recently disclosed that he has this fairly uncommon condition. He shares this trait with neurologist and author Oliver Sachs (“Awakenings,” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”). Prosopagnosia is also the central theme of a new novel by Diane Winger called — appropriately —
Although scientists believed for some time that face blindness was extremely rare and only caused by brain trauma, it is now thought that two – two and a half percent of the population have this disorder with an impaired ability to recognize faces, and that it can be a developmental problem. The disorder does not impact other types of visual or intellectual functions. In Winger’s novel, the protagonist acquires prosopagnosia following a rock climbing accident. In real life, Winger labels herself as “mildly-to-moderately” face blind, and believes her condition is congenital, not due to any trauma.
“My primary goal with this book is to provide the reader with an interesting, intriguing, and entertaining story, but I also hope to raise awareness and understanding of prosopagnosia with my novel,
Faces,” Winger explains.
It wasn’t until her mid-30s that Winger realized that the way she processed and remembered faces might be unusual. At the time, she was working as a Certified Financial Planner, and would spend at least an hour in an initial meeting with a client, with a follow-up session a week or two later. She often found that she couldn’t remember what the client looked like when he or she returned for a second or even a third meeting. In fact, it wasn’t at all unusual for her to find the face sitting across from her to be one she didn’t recall ever seeing at all.
Winger, like most people with face blindness, uses many other strategies for recognizing people. Voices, hair styles, and gestures are important clues to peoples’ identities. Over time, and with numerous encounters, she is eventually able to memorize a person’s face – usually. People with extremely severe prosopagnosia may be unable to ever learn to recognize a face, including the faces of their immediate family.
Scientists currently believe that there are specialized areas of the brain dedicated specifically to facial recognition. Most people can “learn” a new face within an extremely short time, and remember the face as a whole. Someone who is face blind may be able to memorize the shape of a nose, then the shape of a mouth, and so on, but has difficulty remembering the face as a whole.
Winger is the co-author, along with her husband Charlie, of several guidebooks related to outdoor recreation. While she has been writing nonfiction for many years, this is her first published work of fiction.
Faces is available in paperback and for e-readers from Amazon.com and other book outlets.