BBC News
Tuesday, 1 August 2000
Full article (external)

The man who can't recognise faces

Lincoln Holmes can see perfectly well - but he cannot recognise his own face. Thirty years ago Lincoln was in a car accident that damaged an isolated part of his brain. As a result he has no ability whatsoever to recognise people's faces - he is completely "face blind". "In those moments when I am suddenly alone, and I don't know where anybody that I am with is there can be a surge of fear, and it is lonely in that sense. "The very thought of something so basic as recognising faces being lost is not only hard to image, it is pretty scary." Lincoln's case is featured in the BBC documentary series "Brain Story."

When shown a series of slides of inanimate objects, he is able to identify them correctly - but finds it completely impossible to recognise a picture of Marilyn Monroe. Even when shown a picture of himself, he has to be prompted before he realises he is staring at his own image. "For me it is a face, it is not my face, and there is some sense of incompleteness there. So be it. When I am asked by people do faces all the same, the answer to that question is no - they don't all look the same, but none of them look like anyone."

Facial recognition

Lincoln's case has revealed that recognition of faces is carried out by a specific part of the brain. This area is stimulated every time we look at a face, but plays no role in recognising any other object. Experts believe that a specific area of the brain has been set aside exclusively to deal with this highly complex task because facial recognition plays such a vital role in everyday life.

Professor Martha Farah, of the University of Pennsylvania, said: "We have so much hardware in our heads that is dedicated to recognising faces it takes almost nothing to make us see a face. "The most minimal configuration of lines and curves will look like a face, even the pattern of craters on the moon we see as a face." Lincoln's problem is that although he can see facial features, they appear to him as a jumble and he is unable simultaneously to comprehend all the different parts together.





Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles