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The Country of the Face-Blind

[ 9 ] June 6, 2010

Contributor Sam McDougle Reports on Friday evening’s “Strangers in the Mirror” event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.

Prosopagnosia, or “Face Blindness,” can be a devastating affliction.

Imagine: after suffering a stroke, the faces of your loved ones are no longer the unmistakable visages they once were, but are now unrecognizable collages of noses, lips, eyes, and ears.  You can’t tell your loved ones from strangers, and mirrors are less reflections of yourself than they are opportunities for embarrassing run-ins with a similar looking person who has a spot-on impression of you.

Friday evening’s World Science Festival event “Strangers in the Mirror” was a poignant , compelling, and surprisingly (though respectfully) humorous glance into the lives of the face-blind.  The event was moderated by Robert Krulwich (Radiolab, Nightline, Frontline) and the guests were neurologist and author Oliver Sacks and the artist Chuck Close.  Both men are notable thinkers in their respective fields, prolific in their bodies of work, talented orators and educators, and severe prosopagnosics.


Sacks began the narrative of his disease with a story:  He and a physicist made plans to meet at a restaurant for some scientific musing.  On his arrival, the hostess sent Sacks to the table where the physicist was sitting, and they began their conversation.  Unbeknownst to Dr. Sacks, his dinner guest also suffered from severe face blindness.

This improbable fact was not discovered by either man until the physicist, after a course or two, went to the bathroom. He emerged to find that neither he nor Sacks remembered each other’s faces.  An amusing man hunt ensued as the physicist looked for the right table and Sacks wondered where his guest was, like two blind-daters searching for each other at a crowded restaurant.

Sacks first acknowledged his deficit when he was twelve.  He recounted “saying hi to people I didn’t even know,” in a kind of lottery strategy so that he may eventually say hi to a friend and put on that he recognized them.

While Sacks noted sometimes remembering the faces of his loved ones after years of exposure (an important consolation that some prosopagnosics lack), at times he is subject to forgetting even the most recognizable faces – he playfully remarked about “apologizing for almost running into an older bearded man,” who happened to be his reflection.  Krulwich then asked if he recognized his neighbors and Sacks swiftly quipped, “I recognize their dogs.”


Chuck Close has a similar story.  He also felt he was “born with” the deficit and believed it to be his main push towards painting portraits.  He knew he was disabled (though there was likely no word for face blindness at the time of Close’s youth), and thoughtfully mentioned that disabilities often implore one to “find other venues for their intellect.”  Without explaining what “other” really meant, his implication was clear – face blindness certainly blocked some “traditional” professional paths, professions that involve working closely with people and managing day-to-day social interactions.  Close chose the life of the artist.

Close’s inimitable portraits are known for their juxtaposition of the part and whole of the image – each portrait is made up of small square paintings that, on their own, resemble abstract shapes.  However, when the viewer pulls back from the painting the whole face is revealed.

Chuck Close, self portrait

Chuck Close, "Self Portrait"

Curiously, Close mentioned having less trouble recognizing celebrity faces than faces in his daily life.  He found it easy to recognize faces when they were static, “flattened out” images (portraits!), but struggled in 3-dimnesions, saying, “move your head one half inch and it’s a face I’ve never seen before.”


The neurophysiology of face blindness is certainly not completely understood, but there are some hints.  The fusiform gyrus is the area of the cortex involved specifically with facial recognition, and surely plays a role in face blindness.  Acute damage to the area (stroke, cancer, injury) is thought to be related to trauma-induced face blindness.  However, Sacks and Close both have congenital face blindness, and they both report other deficits, including problems with remembering places and navigating.  I caught up with Dr. Sacks after the event and asked him if this points to a more systematic (rather than acute) problem in the congenital vs. acquired prosopagnosic brain.  He said that probably is the case, and referred to his own illness as less of a specific face-recognition deficit than as a more categorical issue – the face as a whole is not a category-worthy object to him because he only sees it in parts (eyes, mouth, nose), and this makes it less likely to lodge in his memory.  It seems that congenital prosopagnosics have trouble seeing the forest instead of the trees.

At the end of the meeting, Krulwich, Sacks, and Close discussed the prevalence of face blindness in the world, and it seems clear that many more people have it than we think and much more can be done to help them.  Sacks painted a picture of hundreds of thousands living in “private embarrassment,” while Close lightheartedly joked about the vast number of prosopagnosics that are likely incarcerated.  Eventually those who suffer from face blindness will know they don’t suffer alone, and perhaps seek therapies that can mitigate the social and personal fallout of the disease.  It only takes the successes of two men like Dr. Sacks and Chuck Close to see that there are always “other venues,” for the disabled among us.  I await a prosopagnosic-written comedy screenplay about a man who incessantly apologizes to a stranger in the mirror.

Good Stories, Well-Told

[ 2 ] June 4, 2010

Contributor Ben Ehrlich Reports on Thursday evening’s The Moth: Grey Matter event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.


The Moth: Grey Matter

Sometime after the appearance of language in the species Homo sapiens the first story was told.  It happened in a tree (in my imagination).  This hypothetical moment would be of the utmost evolutionary importance to some theorists.  Storytelling, like the other ancient and universal arts, could be an adaptive trait.  (Read 2009 Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories).  Or—say Steven Pinker and others—it is a spandrel, an elegant-meaning (if not – sounding) Renaissance term for the triangular space created by the intersection of two arches at a right angle.  (Read 1979 S.J. Gould & R.C. Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme”).  Now, while I do find this debate to be irresistibly interesting it is simply no substitute for stories themselves.  A good story, well-told, remains infinitely more meaningful than the sum of its deconstructed parts.  It is all about the sharing of experience.  This is the reason I found myself in the packed auditorium at Webster Hall on Thursday night fanning myself with two programs while my knees jutted dangerously into the frontmost aisle.  The Moth, a storytelling organization that features competitions in different cities, was hosting a special “mainstage” event for the World Science Festival called “Grey Matter:  Stories from the Left and Right.” It was a hot ticket;  the line had stretched all the way down 11th street.

The line-up was certainly impressive.  Host Mike Birbiglia opened the night with an uproarious story about bladder cancer, a staple from his well-rehearsed stand-up routine.  I had heard the story live twice before, and laughed anyway.  Good storytelling is always immediate,  as there should be attention for nothing else but the words of the teller. Technically, the first performer was Richard Garriott, who—as Mr. Birbiglia quipped—epitomized nerdiness by making a fortune programming video games in order to fund his own trip into space.  Unfortunately, Mr. Garriott’s ten-minutes expired before he could relate much about his twelve-day orbit to the audience. Next Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist currently at New York University, delivered a wonderful and well-crafted narrative about Memorial Day in Israel and her father, a Holocaust survivor.  Her research with Dr. Elizabeth Phelps and Dr. Joseph LeDoux has focused on painful emotional memories—and the possiblity of disarming them.

Writer Mark Katz told the funniest story of the night, although it had nothing to do with science. Mr. Katz was asked by the Clinton White House to punch up a gala speech for then vice-president Al Gore. He scored a huge hit with a joke that he did not—in fact—write.  The infamous joke:  “Al Gore is so boring that his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.”  (Pause for laughter, it’s quite good).  The highlight, however, was learning about the passionate hugging style of our one-time (November 7, 2000 at 8:00pm) president. During another delightful delivery, Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek recounted the controversy he caused by scaring a Long Island banana farmer about potentially apocalyptic “strangelets,” hypothetical particles that may or may not be able to devour the world.  This put the Brookhaven particle accelerator in jeopardy and, more importantly, disturbed what should have been an idyllic vacation for Wilczek.  It was a thrill to hear the physicist speak publically;  he was so clearly brilliant, and as “strange” as those “lets” he spoke of.  After hearing Dr. Wilczek speak, I wonder if one must have a memorably idiosyncratic laugh in order to win a Nobel prize.  (See also:  Kandel, Eric).

The penultimate tale was told with honesty and feeling by the geneticist Kristin Baldwin. She explored the theme of similarity and difference through her relationship with her younger sister, whom she described as her complete opposite.  It was a great performance—and courageous—as I do not believe she is an experienced performer.  I think that the whole audience appreciated her hilarious recollections of conversations with potential suitors about her livelihood: “Oh, I clone mice and make their brains glow.”  Dr. Baldwin, of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, has also collaborated on an art project that uses genetically engineered E. coli bacteria as paint.

The last storyteller was Leonard Mlodinow, the physicist who also wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Macgyver, whose moving account of his own father, a Holocaust survivor, succeeded in affecting perspective.  He talked meaningfully about heroism, as well as actions and consequences.  At times he was forced to pause and step back, as though at a mental crossing, to let a train of painful memories pass.  These were booming and breathtaking silences. For me, this was the height of a great performance.  It all ended in applause, of course, because that is the best way to appreciate a good story.  As long as we praise art, it should not matter how or why it came to exist.  I—for one—would not want to live without it.

Consilience at the World Science Festival in New York City

[ 0 ] May 28, 2010

114576882_3001Sam McDougle and I are guest blogging for the World Science Festival, which will take place in New York City next weekend. Sam’s first post is on “evolutionary bridges”:

In my recent career as an undergraduate, I noticed a curious phenomenon–around my junior year, dorm rooms across the campus were suddenly spending Friday nights captivated by the wonders of the natural world, led along by David Attenborough’s poised intonations. BBC’s Planet Earth box set would soon be as ubiquitous in 18-24 year olds’ DVD collections as The Matrix, Dazed and Confused, and any Wes Anderson venture. As a science student, I was intrigued to see my art-historian/Russian-lit-critic/sociologist friends totally captivated by marine insects and the hunting strategies of wild dogs. [read the full post here]

My first post is about a handful of art/science events at the WSF, one of which includes the vision researcher Margaret Livingstone, whom I’ve written about before on this site.

Some of our greatest triumphs as a species have come from those who saw little difference between being a scientist and being a humanist. From Leonardo’s visionary notebooks to Herschel’s lunar poetry, science has provided a necessary resource for some great art; and art has, in many cases, compelled the progress of scientific research. For Santiago Ramon y Cajál, considered the father of modern neuroscience, it was a childhood spent sketching the branching structures of trees that later reverberated in his pioneering staining techniques of neurons in the brain, yielding some of the most detailed and beautiful scientific imagery of our nervous system to date. [read the full post here]

Check out the WSF site for the full lineup of next weekend’s events.

Rocking the Brainwave Series to its Finish

[ 1 ] April 24, 2010

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux + Guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band in the conclusion of the 2010 Brainwave Series.

Lenny Kaye (L) of the Patti Smith Band joined neuroscientist and rocker Joe LeDoux at the final 2010 Brainwave event.

Lenny Kaye (L) of the Patti Smith Band joined neuroscientist and rocker Joe LeDoux at the final 2010 Brainwave event. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

It was a Monday evening, and the last night guests would file in for the 2010 Brainwave series at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. On one side of the stage were the familiar armchairs that have seated such guests as Philip Glass, Charlie Kaufman, Brian Greene, and Mark Morris, among many others in this edition of the series. To the other side of the stage, a new addition caught the eye: two microphones perched on stands in anticipation of this evening’s esteemed guests.

Neuroscientist and bestselling author Joe LeDoux and guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band split their Brainwave event between thoughtful discussions and performances of LeDoux’s original songs written for his band The Amygdaloids, as well as some classics selected by Kaye that played on the central themes of the evening: the mind and brain, fear and memory.

LeDoux’s research at NYU focuses on the mechanisms of fear memory in the brain using rat models, and has lent important insights to our understanding of the amygdala, the almond-shaped component of our deep-seated, evolutionarily older midbrain (we’ve previously covered LeDoux’s work in a podcast and a recent article). With Kaye providing some mind-bending solos, LeDoux performed several brain-themed tunes, both from past Amygdaloids recordings as well as from their upcoming album due for release this June, which will feature Rosanne Cash.

LeDoux and Kaye’s discussion moved from guitar to armchair, tracing a line of inquiry through our evolutionary understanding of the fear response (the most basic emotion, necessary so that we can avoid peril and enjoy the better things in life) to music theory and history, of which Kaye, the author of You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon is particularly well versed.

Kaye and LeDoux rock out onstage at Brainwave to one of LeDoux's tunes written for his band The Amygdaloids.

Kaye and LeDoux rock out onstage at Brainwave to one of LeDoux's tunes written for his band The Amygdaloids. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

“What is it about music that gets so deeply into our brains?” asked Kaye.

“Music does have an ability to glue our past and present together in a way that not much else can,” LeDoux replied.

LeDoux then quoted a line Kaye wrote for the liner notes of the Amygdaloids’ upcoming album:

“Driven by the flash of neuron and receptor, much as the telepathic transference of audio emotion between musician and audience, music is the most mysterious of arts, one of synaptic and sympathetic overtone and vibrato, encompassing memory, language, self-definition, mirrored understanding—a central experience that is as much of our human cognition as is the need for relationships, hunting, gathering, nurturing and love.”

It was art and science dancing around the same issues, searching for truth with all the tools present. As one of LeDoux’s lyrics goes: “Mind over matter/It’s something I’ve been trying to do/break down space and time/be together with you.”


The 2010 Brainwave series, produced by Tim McHenry, brought a wonderful array of artists and scientists to the stage for unscripted dialogues over the past months that ranged from the neuroscience of feng shui to the possibility of life on other planets. There was something to be learned at each night of this brilliantly curated program: some nights the conversation produced something vastly more than the sum of its participants; other nights the individual expertise and insights of the presenters alone carried the evening along. The unscripted nature of the evenings always lent a particular sense of excitement to the proceedings—an excitement that will now linger until the next iteration of Brainwave opens the doors to the Rubin’s basement auditorium.

Wired for Worship

[ 2 ] April 16, 2010

Anthropologist Lionel Tiger + Neuroscientist John Kubie at Brainwave 2010

gods-brainDebate about religion is almost as old as religion itself.  What is religion?  Does it have a purpose?  From the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse, it seems as though everyone has an opinion.  The Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger, along with the UCLA neuropsychiatrist Michael McGuire, has attempted to make a scientific argument about religion in the new book God’s Brain.  Dr. Tiger appeared at the penultimate event of The Rubin Museum of Art’s Brainwave series, where he was joined onstage by SUNY-Downstate neuroscientist John Kubie.  The two men considered the question of whether human beings are “wired for worship.”

The most important part of the conversation was in fact not conversational at all.  Dr. Kubie, whose lab focuses on the function of the hippocampus on spatial perception, gave a five minute lecture on the serotonergic system, responsible for the distribution of the chemical reward. Best known as the focus of a class of anti-depressants—SSRIs—serotonin was initially discovered to be a substance that induces powerful muscle contractions.  Only 1% of the body’s serotonin stores are located in the brain.  80% is found in the gut, and has been proven necessary for male mating behavior in the sea slug C. elegans (The Lesson in Love:  Go With Your Gut?).

It has become popular to link serotonin to an ever broadening spectrum of behavior.  After all, neurons in the Raphé nuclei in the brain stem (an evolutionarily ancient structure), where serotonin is released, project throughout the brain.  But it is a vastly complex network; it seems a long way from ten carbon, twelve hydrogen, two nitrogen, and one oxygen to a rabbi, a priest, and an imam walking into a bar.

Of course, though his stated aim is to embrace the phenomenon of religion, Dr. Tiger understands this.  The problem of “Why Religion?” is by nature philosophical and thus incessantly complicated by language and theory.  Science can never satisfactorily (by its own critical standards) explain religion, its discourse will merely replace another equally incomplete one.  There is no net epistemological gain, though that is not necessarily the point.  People struggle with religion, and a shared search for its meaning makes perfect sense. In the basement of the Rubin Museum, did not something religious take place?  There was serotonin, there was community (there was wine, there was classical music).  What I mean to say is this:  No one can adequately define Religion.  Is it the institutions?  Is it the impulse?  What are we studying?  What are we embracing?

There are no answers.  If you liked Dr. Tiger’s other books, I would recommend God’s Brain. That is, if you enjoy the exercise of pop-theory.  (You could, of course, try Dr. Kubie’s neurobiology class.  To each his own).

The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory

[ 2 ] April 1, 2010

Leading researchers from around the world present their latest research into the neuroscience of memory at New York University.

Neuron by neuron, we snap together mental structures, constantly evolving palaces of memory that we carry with us until we die.

– George Johnson, In the Palaces of Memory

"The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory," a symposium held at New York University last weekend, brought together some of the foremost neuroscientists from around the world who are investigating the way our brains store, retrieve, and make use of our collected experiences.

"The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory," a symposium held at New York University last weekend, brought together some of the foremost neuroscientists from around the world who investigate the way our brains store, retrieve, and make use of our collected experiences.

As we move through the world, our senses measure the raw data of our experience: a touch is registered by slight changes in pressure on our skin’s surface; a shrill siren rattles the hair cells within our ears. We experience our environment through these physical interfaces—and, like a sponge onto water, we soak up this raw data for everything it’s worth. From the moment our nervous system coalesces, we measure the world with these evolved systems so that we can begin to predict its tendencies and find useful patterns amid the chaos.

Far from storing individual memories in individual cells, the picture of memory in the brain that has emerged in the last half-century of active research is one of a widely distributed and dynamic system involving networks of neurons throughout the brain. In the mid-20th century, Donald Hebb set forth the influential idea that cells which fire together will wire together; Eric Kandel’s Nobel Prize-winning research in the 1960s illustrated the beautiful symphony of neurotransmitters and proteins on the cellular level that accounts for these experience-based changes to the physical structures of the brain—the gradual remodeling of our palaces of memory.

Now, as we face this 21st century of ever-intensifying research into the central nervous system, memory—like consciousness and sleep—remains one of the essential questions about the brain. How, on the most basic levels, does a constellation of cells and synapses store a lifetime of information? What are the mechanisms that cause memories to fade, shift, or be rewritten over time?  How much sleep do I need tonight to remember writing this tomorrow?

This past weekend, some of the leading memory researchers from around the world gathered at New York University for a two-day symposium entitled “The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory,” hosted by the NYU Center for Neural Science. Assembling the experts into thematic triads with twenty-five minutes allotted for each presentation, the organizers smartly moved the program from presentations on Saturday morning about the “building blocks of biological learning machines” to more specialized avenues of research into memory erasure, long-term storage and retrieval, and functional localization of memory in the hippocampus and other structures in the brain as presented in Sunday’s talks.

As all investigations of complex biological systems evolved over millions of years should, Seth Grant of the Sanger Institute in Cambridge began the symposium with a riveting exploration of “The Origins of the Synapse and Evolution of Adaptive Behavior.” According to his research, we should think of the brain as a structure that evolved millions of years earlier than we currently believe, with primitive organisms containing proteins and molecular arrangements that Grant’s genomic research indicates were precursors to the synapse. These primitive systems were scaled up to form the complex nervous systems we now call a “brain.” His talk helped to cement the idea that our vastly complex nervous system grew from very simple structures that evolved for basic solutions to tractable environmental pressures. We must understand that there is a “deep ancestry of synaptic evolution,” as Grant put it.

Henry Markram, director of The Blue Brain Project at EPFL in Lausanne (and whom I’m working with on a 10-year documentary film project), followed with a whirlwind tour through his latest research into the balance of nature versus nurture on the level of neurons and synapses. Markram is using multicellular patch-clamp recording techniques to measure the activity of up to twelve cells at once, allowing him and his team to grasp, with increased resolution, the role of these cells with within a larger network. The take-home message is that we should perhaps think more about the dynamics at the synapse and less about the constant branching of axons and shifting of cellular structures when it comes to memory. The brain, with its vast networks of interconnected neurons, may be more hard-wired than we often believe, with slight modulations to chemical release accounting for the storage of experience more so than the dramatic reshaping and extension of axons to connect with new cells every time a memory is formed.

Moving from the extreme bottom-up approach to one focused on behavior as well as cells, Joseph LeDoux’s talk, entitled “Building Blocks of the Fear Learning Machine,” related the latest insights from his research into the structural underpinnings of fear and memory in the brain  (we previously profiled LeDoux’s research into emotional memory and fear learning here), which continue to suggest that memory is much more dynamic and flexible than once thought—updating, revising, and re-filing of memories are processes that LeDoux’s talk as well as a bevy of other researchers at the symposium handled in neuroscientific terms.

Marie Monfils, who once worked in LeDoux’s lab, presented new work from her UT Austin lab, where she is investigating the interaction of reconsolidation and extinction in fear memory. Some of the latest insights from LeDoux, Monfils and others concern the process of bringing a stored memory back into conscious awareness so that it can be “updated” and sent back into storage, re-colored (hopefully for the better, in the case of traumatic memories) so that next time it’s hauled out of the closet it feels nicer to put on. The esteemed researcher Yadin Dudai, who gave the keynote address for the symposium entitled “The Engram Shaped and Reshaped: Lessons from the Rat Neocortex,” may have put it best: “The best memory is the memory you never use. Once you use it, it becomes unstable.”

This research could have significant clinical implications– but the symposium made it clear that more work needs to be done before we can tease out any such approaches to the vast and tangled system that is memory in the brain. Todd Saktor of SUNY Downstate Medical Center presented intriguing research into the activity of PKM, a protein which acts as a sort of housekeeper to aid in the storage of long-term memory in the brain, maintaining the synapses that link together the constellations of cells that encode our past experiences (for more, see this article about a study involving PKM).

Saktor and others are interested in what happens when PKM is inhibited, thus preventing the normal levels of housekeeping in networks of memory-encoding neurons. In the work done so far, there is promising evidence that blocking PKM seems to effectively erase certain memories in animal models by letting synapses fade into inactivity. This research, combined with new insights into other drug agents such as Propanolol that modulate fear memory, suggests that clinical applications of these new avenues of memory research–perhaps even for PTSD– may be approaching in the years to come.

In similar lines of research, Sheena Josselyn of the University of Toronto spoke of the need to find “the bare minimum of neurons needed to encode a fear memory” in order to finally define an engram; Bong-Kiun Kaang of the Seoul National University gave a talk entitled “Dynamic Nature of Long-term Memory” that elegantly moved between explanations of protein degradation and the degradation of long-term memories stored within these networks of proteins, cells and synapses. On Sunday, speakers shifted to considerations of larger structures and behavioral applications of memory research: Charan Ranganath of UC Davis spoke of research into improving episodic memory through behavioral training, and others spoke to new findings about the hippocampus, a key control center of all memory systems in the brain.

Paving the road from behavior to cellular structures and back again is a pursuit that linked all the talks at the symposium, and will surely continue to be the singular goal of this developing field. On the whole, the research continues to point to the flexibility and widely distributed nature of memory. Like steam rising through a house, our experiences come to fill the complex chambers of our brain throughout our lives, billowing about in every conscious moment and subject to constant rearrangement, re-emergence, and dissipation. One day we may be able to use new techniques to erase the unwanted, ensure the consolidation of the necessary, and re-color the pained. But perhaps the best thing we can do for now is try to get eight hours of sleep.

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