Friday, May 16, 2008

Facial Recognition

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

For me, the answer is easy. I am absolutely terrible at facial recognition.

(Sidebar - this is kind of a trick question. I'm a strong believer that there is a flip side of the coin for every trait/foible that we have and that changing one, even an undesirable one, could have unforseen I guess what I'm saying is that in my fantasy world where I could theoretically upload Facial Recognition Software to my brain like on The Matrix, after great deliberation I would very reluctantly decline. But if facial recognition were something important to No Child Left Behind, I'm quite sure that I would qualify for a learning disability.)

I'm not sure I realized how bad I was until my eldest daughter was talking. At age 3 she recognized people better than I did. We'd be in the grocery store and she would say "That's Jenny's dad." I would soothingly say, "Oh, ok honey" and not believe her. But she was always right. And continues to be, to this day. "You see that lady there, Mom? That's Jason's mom, he played on my soccer team three years ago." I've gotten to the point now that I treat her like crib notes when we go to school functions..."Who's dad is that? He looks vaguely familiar...and which one is Scott's little sister?"

I can literally spend an hour chatting with someone new at a gathering, and see them not three days later without recognizing them. If you were to ask me what we talked about, all that is still there. But the memory of their face has exited my brain. It can be embarassing at times, particularly at work. It's more than once that I've been seeing a new child, looked at the parent and said "You look familiar" to which they reply "You've been treating me for 6 months." Ouch.

When Henry was in the middle of his 4th round of chemotherapy, he was visually unrecognizable to me. His face swollen, his lips bloody, his head bald, his voice hoarse...of course, I knew he was mine. But the knowing was a very cognitive thing. I kept looking at him, looking for something to tell me that it really was Henry, my son, lying in that bed. The emotional connection never broke, of course, but I could feel my mind searching for visual cues to tell me that it was him. It was the strangest sensation, like I was an animal in the wild, and could hear my young calling for me, but just couldn't find him. I searched his face again and again.

What really bothered me was that I knew that had I not been there all along, I wouldn't recognize him. How could I not know that he was mine? If you lined him up with 10 other deathly ill boys, I couldn't have picked him out. It bothered me deeply...I was his mother, and I could not see him there in front of me.

As he started to recover, it was the eyes first. His smile looked so distorted, but even with swollen eyes I could see his expressions. Henry's expressions. My eyes trained on to them, like when you're in a foreign country and you see a sign printed in English. It was such a visceral relief.

I miss his hair, but it's ok. The eyelashes are on their way back in (Yah!). But I hope to never feel that searching again.


socks said...

Is this a picture of Henry's eyes?

Femail doc said...

You should check out They might make you their poster girl!

Dr. Smak said...

Yes, those are Henry's eyes. Pre-chemo, as you can see by the lashes and brows!

Femail, now when I'm in The Matrix I can tell them I need the prosopagnosia software. Definitely a new word for me.

Anonymous said...

Dr Smak's case of prosopagnosia is genetic - not from brain trauma.

rlbates said...

They are beautiful eyes. I have a lot of trouble with names--can remember so many other details; faces, occupations, birthplaces, children, etc but will forget the person's name.

Jen said...

I think that the worst moment for me while my mom was passing was when I hadn't seen her for 3 weeks, and she'd undergone a lot of radiation in the meantime. I walked into the palliative care nursing home where she'd been moved, and actually stood right beside her and asked my sister where she was. That was horrifying to me.

One of my autistic kids is face blind, which is sometimes difficult. If I get a hair cut or lose my voice you can tell that sometimes he has no clue who I am until he's close enough to touch me or scent me. Temple Grandin has done a lot of fantastic writing about her face blindness and how she deals with it, and if you're at all interested in the subject there's 2 great articles- one at Wired (, and one from the NYT (

We were lucky in that when my daughter was doing her chemo she looked pretty much the same, only bald everywhere. The weirdest thing for me was the eyelashes- you really don't realize what a difference they make to a person's face!

I hope that you never have to go through a moment like that again with Henry.

Doctor David said...

I guess the next time I see you in clinic, if you don't recognize me, I won't be offended ;)