Remind Me Where I Know You From

As if there wasn’t enough weirdness in my brain, I live with mild prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. I recently came across this great podcast on the subject, that updated latest developments, as well as providing a few facts I hadn’t known.



Smiling face of a woman with features blurredI first heard of prosopagnosia about a dozen years ago, in a documentary about a woman who couldn’t recognize members of her own family, with whom she lived. I watched it for the same reasons anyone would – curiosity, and wondering what her very different life might be like.

However, as the documentary described how people with less severe cases of the condition may not even be aware of it, and instead think they have trouble with names, or just need to pay more attention, it began to sound unexpectedly familiar.

Signs and Portents

When I was in elementary school, I was greeted by classmates as I was walking with my mother. She asked their names. I didn’t know. She thought that was quite abnormal, and that I must not be paying attention, as she could name everyone in her class when she was a child.

In my teens, on the way home from a trip, I was ushered by a relative into a room where my mother was waiting to surprise me — and I didn’t recognize her. I just chalked it up to the unexpected context, and the fact that I hadn’t seen her in awhile, but that did seem a little odd. 

Then there was the 20 minute conversation I had on the bus with a high school classmate (I thought), only to realize later that she had actually been the roommate of a co-worker. Luckily, both relationships were so casual that we hadn’t discussed anything personal enough to give me away, but still, it shook me a little.

By my 20s, I was joking about my inability to remember people’s names, unless they were “wearing the same color shirt” as the first time I met them. Which almost nobody was, of course.

Later in my 20s, I tried to visualize the person I was dating, who was out of town for a few days, and realized I couldn’t.

In my early 30s, I worked in a call center where the co-workers scheduled on any given day varied, as did their seating. There were two sets of people with similar build, age, gender and hair color who I constantly confused. Side by side, I could easily tell the people in each set apart, but when I was only looking at one, I couldn’t tell which one it was.

Seeing a Pattern

Somehow, though, I never put all of this together until I saw that documentary. I thought I was just bad with names. It didn’t occur to me (though it ought to have, when I was looking at everything but faces to try and identify people) that I might be bad with faces, which resulted in not having anything to attach names to. Was that even possible? Human brains are specialized for that, right?

Not all human brains, it turns out. One of the things I learned from the podcast is that mild prosopagnosia is actually pretty common, occurring in 2 people out of 100. The other 98 people cover a wide spectrum, with “super identifiers” who help police match photos with previous offenders at the other end.

I know those people. I can’t necessarily identify someone I met the day before yesterday, but they somehow recognize me from a 5-minute meeting 3 years ago. Unfathomable.

Putting It To the Test

At the end of the documentary, there was contact information on a prosopagnosia study being conducted at Harvard. I volunteered. The first test consisted of identifying well known people from photographs. My score was well within the range of normal. Hmm, maybe I don’t have it after all, I thought.

But then I was contacted for a followup study awhile later, and that was an entirely different thing.

The images of faces in the test looked like photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, a hundred times removed from the original. Maybe there were some slight differences around the eyes, but I didn’t see how anyone could really tell one from another.

A set of faces was briefly displayed, followed by several more sets, from which I was to identify those I had previously seen. Equally impossible, especially by the second and third round, when even if a face looked familiar, I couldn’t tell whether it was from the current round.

I was shocked by my score, not that it was low, but that it was substantially below average. Somehow, other people were able to tell those formless blurs apart. Even now, knowing more, I find that hard to believe.

I never saw the results of that study, but the question of whether face blindness is an issue of memory or of processing came up in the podcast, and the answer is still under research.

Workarounds

Understanding that prosopagnosia was a physical difference freed me from some of the negative feedback I’d received, and I was able to take a more practical approach. I concluded that I was just going to have to work harder at meeting “normal” social expectations around recognition than most people.

The last time I worked in a corporate cubicle environment, I enlisted the aid of nearby co-workers to “help me remember names.” I developed proactive greetings for people who obviously recognized me, as if I recognized them too, but just couldn’t place them (which was sometimes true, but not always).

I preventively tell people I’m “bad at names” when I meet them. As it turns out, quite a few other people say they are, too. Given what I now know about the commonness of prosopagnosia, I wonder how many of them are on the low end of the facial recognition spectrum like me.

Nowadays I work with clients remotely, and never meet most of them. I appreciate that as an introvert – I hate being watched while I work.

But it wasn’t until the podcast reminded me that I realized working remotely is also great for someone with prosopagnosia. I’m good with voices, and I always know who an email is from.

As for neighbors, I’ve expanded my open floor plan strategy to the whole block, and enlisted help to make a cheatsheet map with names of the occupants of each house.

Beginning and End

One thing the podcast didn’t explore is causes of prosopagnosia. There was a passing reference to congenital conditions, but it wasn’t clear whether that meant hereditary or not.

From the documentary, I remember that it could be caused by brain trauma, and I always assumed that was the case with me. I was a good-sized first baby who took a long time being born, and high forceps (now banned) were used. I sometimes wonder whether that had anything to do with my other brain variations.

The podcast wraps up with an interesting reframing of prosopagnosia from a man who has it – he says we aren’t looking at superficial things, like “beauty,” but are rather most interested in who a person is.

For a video and transcript of the podcast, visit this page.

Risk

A wild goat leaps from one high rock to another against the background of a valley far below, while another goat loks inquisitively into the camera
I have observed that I have a somewhat different perspective on risk from some of my friends. They measure risk – and decide whether to take preventive steps – based on their assessment of how likely an undesirable event is. I, on the other hand, weigh risk and how much preventive action is warranted according to how much of a hassle it would be if it did happen.

Since sensory processing sensitivity is often described in terms of risk aversion, especially in animal studies, I am curious whether HSPs in general identify more strongly with one of the above attitudes towards risk than with the other? Let’s call them “odds” vs “cost.” If you have a moment, please fill out the poll below. Not scientific, of course, but potentially interesting. (If you don’t see the poll, try a different browser or device).

Minutiae

If you face each detail – calmly, patiently, steadily – look how the whole can turn out in time.

An extremely intricate octopus papercut, with thousands of teeny cutouts from a single sheet to create the impression of skin textures and overlap, laid across the artist's palms.

Octopus cut from a single sheet by kirie artist Masayo Fukuda (Article)


 


Mindfull

Line drawing of brain splashed with brilliant colorsIt’s been an intense week. First, the election, loaded not only nationally but locally, due to a corruption scandal. Then, ANOTHER mass shooting, also close to home given my history with country western dance bars and mental disorders. And to top it all off, the weather, after being mild and steady for months, suddenly went kerflui in a very extreme way. For days. Still is, in fact.

My motivation level is barely registering on the meter. OTOH, confusion is high, as I ponder for the umptee-millionth time where the line is between necessary downtime, and a slide into depression to which I should be responding in some remedial way. I was thinking my depression management plan isn’t effective enough, and researching things I could add. Then I was thinking I already had good tools, but wasn’t using them, so maybe adding more tools wasn’t the solution. I was thinking how I have longed to be living in the country for the past 30 years, and yet, I’m not.

In the midst of all of this, I found myself conducting “where are they now” web searches about people I used to know, which is something I do from time to time. This morning, they led me to the years-old blog of someone I had never met, who was the partner of someone with whom I was once (or rather, twice) close friends. She was having a transformational year, and as she blogged, it was transformational to me, too. Transformation isn’t something you can convey descriptively. It wasn’t what she said, it was the way she said it.

Suddenly I was wondering: What if these searches of past associations aren’t unhealthy stalking, or clinging to past relationships that didn’t work, or masochism (given the risk at my age of discovering they are dead)? What if they’re part of a continuous cycle of integrating new perspectives with previous experience?

What if my disinterest in certain parts of my working life isn’t the measure of my ability to create an optimal life for myself, or inability to take care of myself, but is just information?

What if I stopped judging myself, and just let myself be?
Seed pods on a dry stem with fuzzy filaments blowing in one direction

It is so easy to get caught up in setting goals and checking off mile markers on the road to happiness, though in the very act of doing that, we are putting it somewhere else than where we are. But happiness isn’t like that. If ever there was something you can’t hold, or store, or defer, it’s happiness. You are having it in the moment, or you aren’t. And that’s a decision we make every moment.

“Happiness” is a fraught, imprecise term, and yet something I think we all intuitively understand. Substitute peace, centeredness, flow, or whatever it is to you. You know what I mean. The second I realize it’s right there for the taking, I’m off again on a journey somewhere outside of it, analyzing the question of why I don’t then take it. Because I’m too busy worrying about why I don’t take it, that’s why!

My brain is stuffed with all these writhing, hopping, squirming, impassioned thoughts. Though I made them, and they are so, so interesting, sometimes I am exhausted by their noise and wish they would just shut up.

Once upon a time, about 40 years ago, I asked myself whether I was my thoughts, or my feelings. ‘Twas a puzzlement. I was equally invested in both, yet I felt a need to choose because they often disagreed, and then I didn’t know what to do. Which was the real me?

Neither, I eventually figured out. Identity is an underground river, that flows below all of that above ground scurriment, impervious to outside influences. It’s just there, a be-ing, not a do-ing. Hey, that sounds like a great meditation image. I’m going to go try it.
The Milly Way galaxy across a night sky

No Direction Home*

It continues to astound me how many things about myself I have overlooked, or underestimated the importance of, often for decades. I’m so perceptive about other peoples’ feelings – how could I be so dense?? Is it all due to a childhood during which my feelings and desires were constantly criticized and belittled? Or is there some inherent inability in my personality (☾+♆ in the 12th?) to see the obvious when I am looking in the mirror?

That’s one of those questions that can never really be answered. Any more than I can say whether my convoluted path could have been more direct, or whether those twists and turns were an essential part of the process. That 12th house ♆ is ☌ ♃ so it is entirely possible that my confusion, as unbelievable as I would certainly have found it at the time, was inextricably linked to my growth.

Knowing Your Own Strength

A slender man with his arms wrapped around himself and his head bowed stands in front of a drawing of gigantic arms flexed to show huge muscles

This post was inspired by an interview I read today, with Debbie Millman, an apparently famous designer of whom I had never heard. I strongly suspect her of being an HSP. If you are still struggling to find your true path, check it out. You can skip the lengthy bio of her accomplishments at the beginning, but come back and read it after you finish the article – by then it will be relevant.

It was the word “courage” in the title that first caught my eye. I have long felt that, in spite of our vulnerabilities, there is a core strength in HSPs, precisely because we ARE vulnerable. Just being who we are, openly and unapologetically, regardless of being frequently overwhelmed, is inherently courageous. Maybe we don’t have a choice, with our exquisitely responsive emotional skin and utter lack of armor, but rising to that challenge still counts.

I feel there is something I still need to discover about HSP courage that I haven’t quite grasped yet, so I haven’t written about it much. But even if I am overlooking something once again, I feel a sense of urgency about illuminating for other HSPs – especially those who hate that they are HSPs – the inherent capacity to endure and persevere our trait endows us with. Not everyone has that. Don’t hate it because there is pain associated with it.

If You Aren’t Making Mistakes, You’re Not Learning Anything

I first heard this when I was in my late teens, and it was a revelation. I understand now why it is especially momentous for people with a history of critical parenting (see Transactional Analysis to better understand how internalizing this criticism can cause you to recreate the same dynamics in other relationships). And perhaps also to people who are naturally predisposed to self-criticism, if there are such people. Reframing “failures” as valuable, even necessary, learning experiences is also something Millman discusses at length.

But what I like best about her story is her point that everything takes effort, so you may as well work towards something you want, instead of getting caught up in somebody else’s version of “success” that will just make you miserable. As she puts it:

…if you’re considering settling because going after what you want seems too hard to do, remember that hating what you do every day is even harder.

Debbie Millman

Barrie Jaeger makes a similar point, when she talks about classifying work as “drudgery” according to how it feels to you, in Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person (2004).

Beating Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

Millman’s insistence that everything requires hard work may be daunting at first, and I don’t entirely agree with it. Luck and privilege are significant factors. Not that you should sit on your hands while waiting for either of those to happen to you, but if you are comparing yourself to others (a bad habit which I recommend you quit), don’t forget to take them into consideration.

Millman suggests checking our priorities if we find ourselves “too busy” for activities that may bring us closer to the life we want to lead, which seems reasonable enough.  I absolutely agree that our actions speak volumes – especially to ourselves – about who we really believe we are and what we really believe is possible. If we aren’t walking our talk, we need to look at that, and know the reason why.

But she also says (without drawing an important connection between the two) that it can be impossible to predict which activities will change our lives. Finite energy is a real thing for HSPs, if I am any example. Risk-taking has to be balanced with self-acceptance of the need for downtime, or we can squander buckets of energy battling with ourselves about what we “should” be doing, and blaming ourselves if we aren’t doing it. Replacing “should” with “could” creates a useful shift, from starting at self-recrimination, to starting with reasons for choices which may be perfectly valid.

Furthermore, most of the time I don’t have to force myself to do what I love, because I am naturally drawn to it, and it doesn’t feel like work. In fact, I often have trouble coming up for air to eat, pee, and go outside to see the pretty world. I think not allowing ourselves to do what we are most inclined to do is probably a bigger problem than not working hard enough for most HSPs, especially HSP introverts.

Call of Nature

If you have been with me since the beginning, you’ll know I went through several “aha!” moments where I decided THIS is the thing I was born to do. In particular, I concluded I was born to write. I haven’t changed my mind about that.

I was thinking recently about someone whose writing inspired me years ago – a newspaper columnist whose candor, depth and insight stood out from the usual fare like a beacon on a stormy night. But he bought into the notion that writing is not doing, quit journalism in a fit of self-recrimination, and I haven’t heard of him since.

I have been trying to track him down for years. After my latest unsuccessful attempt, I imagined a conversation in which I told him that he had a gift that could not be denied, that a writer is what he is, not what he does, and that touching people in their deepest thoughts and feelings is just as important as addressing their more mundane needs. All of which I understand because it is also true for me. And perhaps the seeds of that understanding were planted by him, though they took so long to germinate, that never occurred to me until now.

Indeed, in the big picture, perhaps feeding the essence is more important than feeding the moment, because it has the power to change the conditions that created those unmet needs in the first place. However, I believe hierachies, whether conceptual or practical, are humanity’s most dangerous delusion (sorry, Maslow), and in this case, are also irrelevant. Bottom line: if you fight your own nature, you will be miserable, and what you have to offer the world will be wasted.

(Don Williamson, you are not forgotten. The lives you touched touch the lives of others, so don’t be too quick to underrate the extent of your impact upon the world. That’s something we can never really know).

The Truth About True Paths

A silhouetted youth with a backpack in a completely featureless, misty space

There are many paths. Or rather, if we step outside a metaphor which can easily become too literal, there are no paths. Your path is behind you, not in front of you. In front of you is only discovery.

If you have a tendency to impose tyranny upon yourself, you will find a way to corrupt the most precious wisdom or most life-shattering insights into self-beration. I speak from experience. It’s a remarkably creative process, really. Once you realize that, you can apply that creativity in more constructive ways.

But there is no right path. The very word “right” should tip you off. I have finally evolved into a life that works for me. Does that mean writing is my new career? Nope. I write when I feel like it, as you can see. I always have, and I suppose I always will, as long as I can. I couldn’t not.

But that doesn’t mean, especially in these days of instant DIY blogging platforms for anyone with an internet connection, that it has to be my income-producing activity. Or that I am off-track if it isn’t.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

What I am doing now is something that I have returned to repeatedly over decades, yet I never really noticed that until about a month ago. I was so busy shuffling through prefabricated identity labels that I didn’t pay much attention to my lifelong irrepressible drive to share insights and information.

I remember the moment in my teens when I first recognized this drive. It was so significant that, more than 40 years later, I recall exactly where I was standing when it occurred to me. It’s probably as central to my identity as writing. More central, since writing is just one aspect of information-sharing. And I was unsurprised when it came up as one of the top three characteristics in my Clifton Strengths evaluation.

Yet, even though I was conscious of it, have been conscious of it for more than 40 years, and was recently reminded of it, I had decided I was a writer, so I almost passed up my current occupation because I saw it as a compromise and a diversion from my true path.

Side Trips

I also failed to predict what now seems a pretty obvious benefit of this profession, fulfilling a need I hadn’t fully realized I had. It brings me into constant contact with people who are like me, in the sense of building their life from the inside out.

In the work I used to do, I hardly ever met people in the workplace with whom I felt any commonalities. It shouldn’t have surprised me. If I was miserable there, wouldn’t anyone like me also be miserable there? If there were such people, they had the good sense to avoid such mismatched work environments.

But rather than seeing a relationship between my alienation, and the fact that I hated my job and the life that it required me to lead, I concluded there must not be any other people like me. That’s the thing about forcing yourself into a niche where you don’t fit. It distorts your perceptions so you can’t even find the door. Or if you do, you don’t know where else to go, which was my problem.

The Beginning in the End

But I eventually figured it out, and that probably means you can too. Not because we are all the same, but because if even I could figure it out… I’m now leading a life that feels authentic and satisfying, and that I can picture extending into the foreseeable future. I hope you can skip some of the steps I had to take, but if you can’t, maybe they are as essential to your development as my missteps were to mine. In other words, they’re not missteps at all.

I keep coming back to the story of the farmer’s son, originating from somewhere in Asia (some say Taoism, some Buddhism):

There lived an old farmer who had worked in his fields for many, many years. One day, his horse bolted away. His neighbors dropped in to commiserate with him. “What awful luck,” they tut-tutted sympathetically, to which the farmer only replied, “We’ll see.”

Next morning, to everyone’s surprise, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How amazing is that!” they exclaimed in excitement. The old man replied, “We’ll see.”

A day later, the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses. He was thrown on the ground and broke his leg. Once more, the neighbors came by to express their sympathies for this stroke of bad luck. “We’ll see,” said the farmer politely.

The next day, the village had some visitors – military officers who had come with the purpose of drafting young men into the army. They passed over the farmer’s son, thanks to his broken leg. The neighbors patted the farmer on his back – how lucky he was to not have his son join the army! “We’ll see,” was all that the farmer said!

Different people take different things from this, but to me it underscores how much we interpret our experiences through the lens of current expectations and emotions, as if that is the only possible interpretation.

I’m not suggesting it should be otherwise. We feel what we feel, and we can’t see the future. I’m just saying, have faith in your journey, and keep an open mind. It’s not over yet. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. And maybe that’s not even the point.

The shiny, molten surface of a pond or lake, with ripples as if from a light breeze


* Although Bob Dylan’s poetic genius is beyond dispute, I don’t think he’s a very nice person (for which “genius” is no excuse, IMO), and I’ve always found Like a Rolling Stone to be particularly vicious. The line “no direction home,” however, has entered into the collective consciousness with a life of its own. I chose it despite my feelings about Dylan because I felt it would immediately call to people struggling to find a life path, a state with which I am all too familiar, having wrestled with it for some 43 years before I finally found my own direction home.

Grief

Maybe if I hold very still and don’t breathe, the pain won’t find me.
A state of a man made our of bricks is merged with a brick wall