Oliver Sacks, Face Blindness
In the New Yorker magazine of August 30, 2010 there is an excellent article by Dr. Oliver Sacks on the subject of face blindness. It is a condition termed ’prosopagnosia,’ by the medical profession, the Greek word for lack of knowledge about the face. Sacks is also the author of the popular book about this disability, the title of which “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat,” says much about the content. Dr. Sacks is a physician, well trained and well versed in all aspects of this debilitating handicap, from which he himself has suffered throughout his life.
I am not a physician, nor have I been afflicted with that condition. Nonetheless I have more than a passing interest in it. My interest stemmed initially from my interest in art. From that jumping off point I have become absorbed with a number of subjects. One, quite naturally, was art history. Another, not so naturally, was the many functions of the right cerebral hemisphere of the human brain, and its evolutionary role in the history of human cultures.
I was fully understanding, though disappointed, in the dearth of information in Sack’s book, and article, concerning the connection between face blindness and the right hemisphere. It was mentioned in both just barely above the incidental.
There was even less mention of the connection between the right brain and many traits of what we call ‘humanism,’ and their tandem rise, decline, and rebirth in the course of history, including prehistory , particularly the history of western civilization.
This essay, and any that are to follow, are meant to explain those issues, their relationship to each other and to the absence of facial expression in artistic portrays of the past, and their potentially overwhelming significance. It is not meant to be an autobiography. However there appears no better way to logically explain the subjects than to recount how I came to them. They resulted ultimately in the three books I have mentioned together in an earlier essay under the heading of “Evolution and Humanism.”
I retired from my law practice in 1991 and earned a master’s degree in anthropology during the next two years. I have been interested in art during my entire adult life, and have visited many museums in the United States, Europe and some in the Orient. Somewhere along the line I became intrigued by the depiction of the human face at various times by the different cultures. That interest heightened upon my acquaintance with the cave paintings in southwest France, all done between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago. During my initial study of these splendid animal art specimens, the oldest was believed to be only about 18,000 years ago. What intrigued me about the human face in that art culture was its virtual absence.
The animals were beautifully done, life like except for perspective. Scenes, compositions consisting of multiple objects, are almost entirely lacking. There are some depictions of humans, or stick figures as they are called: circles for faces, a line, if anything, for a mouth and eyes, single lines for the body and limbs.
Later, through most of ancient history, there were faces on the humans, or more precisely, there were noses, mouths, eyes, ears and other features. But the absence of expression in many cultures was total; in the Egyptians and Assyrians, almost so. Portraiture was unknown. Egyptologists tell us that the statues of the kings in that ancient land were never intended to look like the kings. They were ‘generalized,’ or ‘romanticized,’ depictions.
Servants, soldiers or workmen shown in rows all looked exactly the same. There was no individualization. Faces, whether painted or sculpted seem to stare past us, gazing into nothingness and devoid of any emotion. That lack is to be noted universally (including China and the orient generally, though that part of the world has a different timeline from the west). It predominates in North American native art, the art of the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inca, the South Sea Islanders, the northern Europeans, the Assyrians, and the archaic Greek , among many others.
It changed about the 4th Century BC. In Greece, which was about 7 or 8 hundred years following centuries of incursions by northern populations. These included the Indo-Europeans,, Achaens, Dorians, Ionians, Thracians, Illyrians, and many others. Greece became a melting pot for populations that had lived separate from each other for many centuries, if not millennia, the significance of which will be discussed in later essays. There, for the first time, we see sculpted faces that look like us, and look to us, or, at least to something in this world, faces with whom we feel we could speak, and who show finely tuned grades of emotion and human feeling. For the first time also we are seeing likenesses of individuals.
Like so many other things Greek, it was admired by the Romans and adopted by them. This was cultural influence in part, and most probably genetic influence in part, the Greek presence in the area of the empire considered. Genes and culture work in a mutually enhancing relationship, called ‘symbiotic’ by the scientists.
It lasted in Rome until the incursion, about the third century A.D., of northern tribes, the Huns, the Cimbri, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Franks, the Longobards, the Vandals, and literally scores of others , whose names are known mostly to scholars of that history. For close to a thousand years, the blank face on the art in that area and all of Europe returned; facial expression all but disappeared. Like the invaders of Greece, centuries earlier, this resulted in the mixture of populations that had been separated for many centuries.
With relative suddenness, in the 15th Century it reappeared in Italy as it had almost 2000 years earlier in Greece. Now it spread into much of Europe. The portraiture of the Renaissance and post Renaissance needs little elaboration here.
It was mostly through chance that I was to first read of the psychological and neurological research that localized our remarkable ability to recognize familiar faces of other humans at the swiftest of glances. That skill resides in the right hemisphere of the brain, in a particular area called the right fusiform gyrus. There is a similar gyrus in the left brain, but facial recognition skills are in the right. So, it has been found, does our ability to make and to recognize expressions of the human face. As Dr. Sacks makes clear, those suffering this disability often learn to identify faces in a much less satisfactory way, the way of the left hemisphere. The right unconsciously puts many things together, integrates them as a whole; and is the source of our hunches, our imaginations, our desire for novelty, our ability to see things in context, often being referred to by scientists and art historians as ‘part to whole relationships.’ It is the seat of our aesthetic sense, and our sense of space.
The left brain sees things sequentially. It is the repository of the basics of our language skills, particularly vocabulary and grammatical constructions. But such things as imagery and metaphor are very poorly understood by the left brain if at all. As Sacks, and many other researchers have explained, reading of emotions is even more problematic for prosopagnosics than identification.
The difference was well expressed by the psychiatrist, Dr. Rahn Joseph: “The left brain sees a hundred trees; the right brain sees a forest. The left brain sees a nose, a mouth, an ear, and lips.; the right brain sees a face.”
Even when I first read about this subject, I did not doubt that prehistoric and ancient, as well as medieval peoples, had functioning right hemispheres. But I soon felt convinced that the growth of facial expression in art was in large part due to genetically mediated increased development of that hemisphere of the brain. The cultural ‘reasons’ assigned by art historians for the initiation of these changes often seemed like bastions of guesswork and illogic, lacking any factual foundation.
I did not see the genetic aspect as any individual aberration, passed down from parent to child. That has been shown to be the case with face blindness today. To me, these ubiquitous changes seemed to be a matter of human evolution.
I soon noted something that strengthened that conviction, namely that the changes in facial expressiveness in portraiture seemed to come and go with three dimensional perspective. Where faces were blank the pictures were two dimensional; the attention of the artist was in each part of the painting with little regard to the relationship between parts. Perspective was as flat as the affect on the face in art.
In the course of my reading I found that our capacity for three dimensional appreciation and ability to draw or paint in three dimensions, resides in the right cerebral hemisphere. It was for me a Eureka moment.
Both perspective and other traits of humanism, including use of metaphoric language, individualism, empathy, and appreciation of natural beauty are largely mediated by the right hemisphere. It is a subject to be discussed in more detail in future essays. It is the subject also of my three volumes described under the heading of “Evolution and Empathy” in an earlier essay in these pages.
The author’s web site is www.ourinterplanetaryfuture.com