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FACIAL RECOGNITION DISORDER

There are people who cannot see faces the way the rest of us do. Their vision is fine and they can point to a nose or a mouth but they do not appreciate the totality of a face, they may not see their own face in a mirror and, they have trouble remembering faces.

Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, has had trouble recognizing faces for as long as he could remember. (New Yorker, August 30, 2011). People in his life thought he was shy or reclusive or socially inept or eccentric or that he suffered from Asperger’s when the problem was he had difficulty recognizing faces.

Glenn Alperin writes about his prosopagnosia, the technical name for what is also called face blindness, in his blog.

Glenn emailed me recently asking for permission to quote my ParenTip on Stranger Danger in his work. His email was an eye-opener for me. Everything I ever thought about stranger danger presupposed that the child could recognize a stranger the way I do by seeing an unfamiliar face. But what about kids that can’t recognize faces! My advice that children should be taught never to go with ANYONE unless they ask the grownup in charge is more important than ever. (see ParenTips, Stranger Danger I and II)

Once thought to be a very rare disorder it is becoming apparent that prosopagnosia is more common than we realize. We know there are two types, developmental prosopagnosia (often familial and likely genetic)and that caused by a brain injury. The neuroscientists can pinpoint the part of the brain involved.

A recent study out of Harvard showed that the ability to recognize faces rises sharply from age 10 to 20, increase more slowly in the 20s and peaks at age 30 to 34. This is about a decade after other mental abilities like remembering names which peak at age 23 to 24.

The human face is critical to child development from the first eye contact at birth. Babies smile at a smiling face and engage adults to interact with them by this instinctive act. Sacks writes, “Our age and gender is imprinted on our faces. Our emotions, the open and instinctive emotions that Darwin wrote about as well as the hidden or repressed ones that Freud wrote about are displayed on our faces along with our thoughts and intentions.”

I want to use this ParenTip not only to make you aware of this disorder but also to emphasize we are not all wired the same way. The human brain, the most complex structure in the universe, is similar in structure in all of us but is wired differently in each of us. The wondrous brain, which we are learning more about every day, is what makes us human but the unique way in which each brain is wired based on the experiences of each person is what make each one of us our unique, individual self.

As parents we understand that each of our children is different. We learn to recognize and respect the innate temperament and personality of each child. We learn parenting skills to help us deal with these differences. And neuroscience will help us learn much more about brain development. I truly believe knowing more about the brain will help us become better parents.

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