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Facial Blindness

A Note from John:  Please welcome guest contributor Lakenzie Crawford to our “Freedom to Fly” blog. Lakenzie Crawford is a junior at the University of Tennessee where she is studying to pursue a career involving practice, research, and policy making as they relate to special education through the College Scholars Interdisciplinary Honors Program. She is one of the founding members of Club VIBES’ Young Professionals Group.

I have always been asked if I can hear better than others because I’m legally blind and I kind of grew up to believe I might have some superior hearing ability. I think most of us have conformed to the societal belief that people who are blind or deaf have an extraordinary ability to compensate for their loss, but what does that even mean?

As I got older, I realized that I did not actually have a superior ability to hear anything. If you give me a hearing test, I would score the same as anyone else my age. Since this kind of dampened my view of myself, I had to reevaluate my stance and the situation. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it was because I was using my hearing more effectively since I was using my vision less. Thus, I was able to hear things that other people were registering, but mostly just filtering out. I would find out much later that, while this is possibly a contributing factor, it probably is not the main factor contributing to my ability to use my hearing more efficiently than others.

During my time in Sensory and Perception, one of my favorite Psychology classes, I learned about all this cool stuff about vision and just how complex it is but I also started to find myself asking so many more questions. I felt like the more I knew, the more I didn’t know. We learned about how we use our brains to perceive objects, depth, color, motion, and all sorts of things and we, naturally, learned about the research in the field that led to these “facts” we were learning.

I remember on one day in particular that we were learning about face recognition. During that lesson, we were introduced to Face Blindness, or more professionally known as Prosopagnosia. For those who do not know, Face Blindness is a disorder that inhibits someone from being able to recognize familiar faces by sight. So, as you might assume, someone suffering from such a disorder has to use other ways to recognize people like their hair, voice, posture, etc. Sounds about right, huh? Then I went home and started reading about it…

In one interview of someone with Face Blindness, a man was trying to describe how the disorder affects him, and he used an example of eating lunch at work. He told a story about one lunch in particular when he was telling his colleagues about a presentation he was going to be giving soon. He said that one of his colleagues promptly asked him to send him an invite as the colleague got up and left the table. He then went into how this was a problem for him because he could not tell who that man was in order to send him an invite. After hearing this story, I immediately stopped and scratched my head. How could he not tell who he was having lunch with?

Due to my low vision, I have never been able to recognize faces. I have had many friends for years before I could actually tell you what their face looked like. I was never able to tell actors and actresses apart. I couldn’t even tell you what the girl’s face looked like who had set beside me in class every day for a year. In fact, I still cannot distinguish faces any better. However, for me, I can identify people very easily in familiar cases. I began pondering why this was, if I could not recognize the faces of people who I knew, than how could I identify people. Eventually, the lightbulb went off, I know pretty much everyone in my life by their posture, probably because this is the most visible characteristic of a person. But that led to another question: why could people with Face Blindness not do the same thing?

Again, I sat and I thought about this for a long time. What was so different about the two cases? Ah ha! My brain is fully in tact… Someone suffering from Face Blindness has damage to their Fusiform Gyrus, which is responsible for face recognition; I do not. This means the area of my Fusiform Gyrus that was originally responsible for face recognition must have taken on a similar responsibility, identifying people, but with a different type of specificity, like posture. This was my conclusion and I kept with it.

Later that semester I learned about many other cases, like people with Autism having a lack of mirror neurons affecting their ability to gain empathy, and I began to question if I was, in fact, correct. So I gave in and looked it up. It was everywhere; people with total blindness have activity in their visual cortex… One example of the research that has been done on this topic is a study published by Burtun et al in the Journal of Neurophysiology (2002) describing fMRI scans of blind individuals (bother early and late onset) who were reading a Braille text. These FMRIs indicated that not only did blind individuals have activity in their visual cortex while reading Braille, but those who has early-onset blindness had more activity than those with late-onset blindness. This not only shows that the brain can adapt to almost anything, but it also agrees with the belief that our brains lose plasticity over time.

Now, when we are wondering why someone with a visual impairment seems to be able to hear better than individuals with normal vision, we can feel confident that it probably is not an illusion. And, when we wonder what happens to that 30% of our brain that is dedicated to vision when we go blind, we can also rest assured that it is not going to waste. The power of our brain to adapt to nearly anything is quite amazing, and the insight that we could gain from knowing more about how our brain works should not be taken for granted. Knowing your brain allows you to truly understand who you are and what makes you who you are. Understanding that gives us the power to better advocate for ourselves to ensure that we have the ability to utilize all of the potential we have been given, so don’t let your brain slip your mind!


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