“[J]ust as our brains shape us, we can shape our brains.”
The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, page 8
For as long as I’ve known him, my friend T has had an odd mannerism. When I’d walk up to him in a group, he’d give me a blank glance and say nothing. When I’d join the conversation, he’d suddenly blurt, “Joel! Hey, how are you?” as if he’d just seen me.
In reality, that was when he’d first recognized me.
T can’t tell the difference between two faces any more than you can tell the difference between two sheets of paper. Until he identifies people by some other means, he doesn’t know, can’t know, who they are.
This creates challenges. When T goes to the airport to pick his wife up after visiting her mother, he has to ensure that he’s “picking up” the right woman, because he can’t recognize her. After a certain incident involving a woman wearing a coat exactly like one his wife owns, he’s learned to be circumspect when approaching women at airports.
Prosopagnosia is the fancy name for face-blindness. It’s one of many neurological conditions which Barbara Arrowsmith-Young has learned can be addressed with carefully crafted mental exercises which literally change the brain.
When T finally thought to mention this to me just over a year ago, I was floored. I have seen him accomplish amazing feats of recognition due entirely to amazing coping strategies. He spent his entire childhood learning how to recognize people. He was 18 before he realized that most people have a system in their brain which makes it the most natural thing in the world.
The two halves of that story, T’s coping strategies and my failure to recognize his condition, are the two GEMs below. Each side of the coin has a lesson.