Monday, November 07, 2011

A brief speculative thought about the Tammet controversy and prosopagnosia

To date I've not been able to find any writing by the popular writer on neuropsychological topics Dr Oliver Sacks on the subject of Daniel Tammet. I invite my readers to let me know about any pieces of writing, or material in other media, by Sacks about Tammet that I am unaware of. Tammet is the type of person that one would naturally expect Sacks to write about - Sacks writes about neurological case studies that are curiosities and interesting, and Tammet could be seen as belonging to that category. Tammet has presented himself to the world as an unusual and extreme case of synaesthesia, and Sacks has written some worthwhile stuff about synaesthesia, despite that fact that Sacks lacks a first-hand insight into the condition as a non-synaesthete. The apparent absence of interest in Tammet as a writing subject on the part of Sacks seems odd.

I've got to wonder why Sacks apparently hasn't written about Tammet. I'm tempted to speculate. Could the fact that Sacks is a quite severe case of developmental prosopagnosia be relevant to this matter? Sacks wrote a full and interesting account of what it is like to have a major dose of face-blindness in his last book The Mind's Eye along with a related severe problem with recognizing buildings and landscapes, and this chapter was I believe based on an article that he wrote for New Yorker magazine. Clearly severe prosopagnosia, a face recognition disability, is not a minor issue. It can be a major spanner-in-the-works of one's social life, if Sacks' description of the disability can be taken as a typical experience of prosopagnosics at the more severe end of the scale. Daniel Tammet has also claimed to have a serious disability in recognizing faces, in his second autobiography published in 2009 Embracing the Wide Sky, and also in a 2009 interview with the US version of the 60 Minutes TV show. In Tammet's first 2006 autobiography Born on a Blue Day he claimed to have a poor sense of direction. It is an interesting exercise to contrast Tammet's books with Sacks' written account of life with prosopagnosia. Sacks recounted in detail many episodes of social embarassment and difficulty resulting from his face recognition problems, while Tammet described in his first autobiography Born on a Blue Day finding an old friend who was waiting for him at an airport; "a familiar face", just the type of scenario which I would imagine might be a social nightmare for Sacks. How did Tammet positively identify his old friend? He didn't explain in the book, nor mention any difficulty in doing so. The reader would no doubt assume that Tammet recognized his friends and school acquaintances by their "familiar faces", but this is in stark logical contradiction with Tammet's claim in his second autobiography to have "great difficulty remembering faces, even those of people I have known for many years". Tammet seems to be a most unusual case of prosopagnosia, with an onset in adulthood, for no apparent reason, in between autobiograpies. The author Joshua Foer and myself have both been able to find a variety of pieces of evidence that throw into doubt Tammet's claims about being face-blind, and I have written about this in a post that I published in early October. I can't help wondering whether Sacks has felt skeptical about Tammet as a supposed case of savantism, synaesthesia, Asperger syndrome and prosopagnosia all in one person, one might expect that the best person to detect a pretend prosopagnosic might be a genuine case, and perhaps it might be particularly galling to behold a person who appears to be pretending to have a disability which one genuinely suffers from? I can only speculate.

Oh, and one more point worth mentioning. Did you notice that Oliver Sacks has claimed to have severe face-blindness, but I recall that he has also claimed that he does not experience synaesthesia somewhere in one of his books. Despite the common misconception, prosopagnosia and synaesthesia do not necessarily go together. I believe there are some people who do have both unusual conditions, but I don't think there is any hard evidence that synaesthetes are any more likely to have face memory issues than non-synaesthetes. Some of the earlier, more speculative and less evidence-based writing about synaesthesia from the modern era of synaesthesia research has included speculation that synaesthesia might be linked with issues such as a poor sense of direction, poor left-right discrimination and prosopagnosia, but I don't know of any research that has supported these claims, which appear to have been based on anecodes. In contrast, Tammet claims to have a laundry list of unusual neurological conditions and disorders, as well as a range of disorders of the mind in his family history. I wouldn't be at all surprised if a reading of the earlier, more speculative literature about synaesthesia, such as Dr Richard Cytowic's popular and influential book The Man Who Tasted Shapes was an influence on Tammet when he wrote his first autobiography.


Anonymous said...

Although Tammet talks a lot about being used as a "guinea pig" by scientists, the amount of real research that has been done on him is quite limited. There's the "routes to remembering" study in 2002, and then the involvement of Ramachandran, Treffert, and Baron-Cohen and their teams when the Brainman documentary was produced. Apart from that, there's not a lot, and certainly no other peer reviewed studies of him.

I'm sure there's no shortage of other scientists who would like to study him. Worth quoting from Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking with Einstein":

"Sometimes people ask me if I mind being a guinea pig for the scientists. I have no problem with it because I know that I am helping them to understand the human brain better, which is something that will benefit everyone," Daniel writes in his memoir. "It is also gratifying for me to learn more about myself, and the way in which my mind works." When Anders Ericsson invited Daniel to visit FSU to be tested according to his own exacting standards, Daniel said he was to busy to make the trip."

In reality, I suspect Tammet is avoiding study by potentially sceptical scientists. It wouldn't surprise me if Sacks, Ericsson, and even Ramachandran (who only had brief access to Tammet) are quite sceptical about him and don't want to come to any conclusions unless they can get some more hard evidence.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

What is the source of that info about Anders Ericsson?

More than once I've read that Tammet has been the subject of "several" research studies. If "several" means around seven, then I believe that is an exaggeration.

Lili Marlene said...

I'd be writing more postings about Tammet if I weren't so busy at the moment. Hope to find more time later.

Lion and Lam said...


I'm putting together a research proposal on whether or not there is a relationship between prosopagnosia and synaesthesia.

Could you elaborate upon the idea that any link is a misconception?

I'm quite a severe case; I see color representations of people (Almost like animated Rothko paintings.) that obstruct any attempt to picture the face in question.

So to me it seems to make sense that we can only form on strong image at a time, and they will necessarily get in each others way. I suspected the same obstruction occurs with less pronounced cases.


Lili Marlene said...

I'm not sure that I've ever heard of a case like yours, in which the synaesthesia overshadows or interferes with face perception. It's not the kind of thing I'm familiar with even though I'm a synaesthete. If there was a spectrum from "associators" to "projectors" I think you and I would be at opposite ends, but that is probably quite a simplification.

Given that you report issues with identifying faces due to synaesthesia, that doesn't necessarily make you a prosopagnosic as that condition is currently understood. First, you would need to be tested to verify a real disability, and even if you do have a real issue, your self-report of face recognition difficulty isn't like the experiences typically reported by prosopagnosics. I'm not an expert, but it is my understanding that the majority of prosopagnosics don't report having synaesthesia. They do report having no face memory. They see faces. They don't remember them. The bit of their brain that stores memories of faces either isn't there, is doing that function for some unknown reason, or is "offline".

My belief that there isn't a strong link between prosopagnosia and synaesthesia is based on the many discussions among synaesthetes that I've read and participated in. Plenty report no issues with face perception, and if there was a strong link I'm sure it would be the subject of much discussion in the world of synaesthetes and synaesthesia research, but as far as I can see, it isn't.

A lot of ideas about links between synaesthesia and brain issues seem to have originated in the dismal period of synaesthesia research when it was thought that synaesthesia was a very rare condition. Synaesthesia researchers in the 1800s knew this was not true, and recent studies have re-established the fact that it's uncommon but certainly not rare. Synaesthetes are everywhere, and the fact that you and I can't pick the synaesthete in a crowd or identify us by our behaviour kind of proves that we aren't the dysfunctional freaks that some believe we are.