Prosopagnosia

bradpitt

Memo to Hollywood: Don’t take it personally if Brad Pitt has no memory of meeting you. The World War Z actor, 49, apparently has a difficult time recognizing people’s faces. In fact, he thinks he may suffer from prosopagnosia, or face blindness.

Speaking about the problem in his much-talked-about interview for Esquire magazine’s June/July issue, Pitt says that even if he’s had a “real conversation” with someone, he’ll forget what the person looks like almost as soon as he or she walks away. “So many people hate me because they think I’m disrespecting them,” the actor confesses to the mag.

Prosopagnosia is a rare brain disorder that impairs the ability to recognize faces without affecting other aspects of visual processing.  It is usually caused by a lesion affecting the fusiform gyrus such as stroke or head trauma, although there are even rarer congenital cases.

Perhaps the best known case is “Dr. P.” in Oliver Sacks‘ 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat:

Dr P. was a musician of distinction, well-known for many years as a singer, and then, at the local School of Music, as a teacher. It was here, in relation to his students, that certain strange problems were first observed. Sometimes a student would present himself, and Dr P. would not recognize him; or, specifically, would not recognize his face. The moment the student spoke, he would be recognized by his voice …….. At first these odd mistakes were laughed off as jokes, not least by Dr P. himself …….. His musical powers were as dazzling as ever; he did not feel ill—he had never felt better ……. The notion of there being ‘something the matter’ did not emerge until some three years later, when diabetes developed. Well aware that diabetes could affect his eyes, Dr P. consulted an ophthalmologist, who took a careful history and examined his eyes closely. ‘There’s nothing the matter with your eyes,’ the doctor concluded. ‘But there is trouble with the visual parts of your brain ……… ‘What seems to be the matter?’ I asked him at length. ‘Nothing that I know of,’ he replied with a smile, ‘but people seem to think there’s something wrong with my eyes.’ ‘But you don’t recognize any visual problems?’ ‘No, not directly, but I occasionally make mistakes.’

Dr P. illustrates another important symptom in cognitive neurology, anosagnosia. Dr P. is himself completely unaware that he has a problem, he compensates without even knowing it.  It is his wife and students that encouraged him to seek medical attention.

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