chuck The Intriguing Case of Chuck CloseA self portrait by Chuck Close

In doing some research on Prosopagnosia, a psychological condition which distorts the perception of faces I stumbled across the fascinating and inspiring case of Chuck Close, a man more famous for his spell-binding art than his prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia doesn’t actually affect the ability to see in any way but rather the ability to recognise faces in the normal uniquely human way.

822850 face recognition The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

The current consensus in the literature is that we can remember such an extroardinarily large number of faces beause we use a vector based mathematical model called the “Face Space model”. According to this model we remember faces by what makes them specifically different from the average face rather than having a photographic memory for faces as a whole. This explanation has been used to generate the powerful face recognition algorithms we are beginning to see employed in intelligent CCTV systems.

face recognition The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

For some however, the part of the brain (the “fusiform face area”) that handles this information is damaged. This can cause an individual who is intelligent and able in every sense of the word fail to be able to distinguish their closest friends and family. This became common knowledge for many after the famous “case of the man who mistook his wife for a hat” by Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks has only recently with his book “Inside The Mind’s Eye” declared himself to suffer from a milder case of prosopagnosia.

Until now I’ve read much on prosopagnosia but been quite unable to remotely grasp how it must feel. It’s been described as being like a human trying to distinguish sheep based on their facial features, something simply incomprehensible in the same way as human faces. Taking a look at Chuck Close’s artwork however gives us a window in to how it must feel. Chuck draws faces by taking a photograph and then dividing it in to pixels and painstakingly copying the shading from the pixels on to huge canvases. The effect of this is somewhat amazing. If you stand directly infront of the canvas it is almost impossible to discern anything apart from a seemingly random blur of colour. It is only when one steps back that the amazingly intricate features of the human face become apparent.

I found the following Chuck Close piece on an art blog that gives a wonderful description of the piece yet remains starkly oblivious to the mental condition that enabled it…

“I cannot even imagine the creativity, design sense and fabric knowlege needed to construct this spectacular rug/portrait out of silk and linen.  It is an amazing experience to stand in front of it and back up little by little until the montage of colors becomes a face full of character.”

chuck close rug 1 The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

Upon understanding exactly how this work came to be makes the piece just that bit more beautiful. I find humbling to be able to take a glimpse out of the eyes of someone with this condition. At the same time it is strangely awe-inspiring, in a way that compels the viewer to want to explore their consciousness that bit further (than perhaps is, technically, legally allowed). Until now I thought the art work of individuals with synaesthesia was likely to be the most (naturally) psychologically influenced art to provoke that effect, but that discussion is for another day.

If you think you might have prosopagnosia you can participate in current research virtually in an online test with the prosopagnosia research centre here.

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  • Eleni

    Amazing! I love this kind of stuff. Maybe we don’t know much about creativity and prosopagnosia compared to synasthesia because synaesthesia is more common?

    • Neurobonkers

      It’s hard to estimate due to the fact that they both seem to be heterogeneous at least to some extent. They seem to be within the same ranges at least, I’d of thought a major factor for the imbalance in interest would be simply that synaesthesia has typically been seen as more interesting. Synaesthesia is cited as the only psychological condition in which the vast majority of people with it actually see it as somewhat of a blessing. I think that and the various enhanced abilities that can be gained from it is what makes it so fascinating. Prosopagnosia on the other hand is generally seen as more of a hindrance it seems. So yes there is certainly not the volume of art created by individuals with prosopagnosia as those with synaesthesia but I wouldn’t necessarily say that is due to the incidence of the condition.

      On a semi-related note, Jon Sarkin is another fascinating case of someone creating amazing art as a result of a psychological condition.

      • Eleni

        Jessica Griggs says that most people with synaesthesia are artists because they find it as the only way to express their peculiar experiences. So I’m guessing that a synaesthetic has a lot to express verbally but is unable due to the lack of shared subjectivity. It’s really amazing stuff.

  • hayward

    Great post! The artwork is particularly cool. I work with a prosopagnosic patient, and although it’s clearly not a nice condition to have, he has developed strategies to get around not being able to recognise faces. He recognises me by my daft hair cut and the fact that I’m often smiling and telling flippant jokes. And my voice. Other people he recognises by their glasses or other salient features. He’s so good at doing this that I’ve never seen him confuse one person for another, even when we’ve been sitting together with a group of five or six people.

  • Eran

    Interesting! I wonder what Alfred Adler would’ve said

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