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Remembering faces and remembering words - RTC3
Random Thoughts on Crosswords Cryptic and Concise + Recherché Times Crossword Clues Considered
Remembering faces and remembering words
BBC TV's latest Imagine series kicked off last Tuesday with a programme about Dr Oliver Sacks. Ever since I read Awakenings many years ago, I've found Sacks and his work as a clinical neurologist endlessly fascinating, and this programme was no exception. One thing I found particularly interesting was that Sacks confessed to always having had great difficulty recognising faces. That's not because the same thing applies to me - at least it doesn't to any serious extent - but because I feel intuitively that it ought to, and I don't fully understand why it doesn't. What I suffer from is the inability to conjure up in my mind anything approaching a satisfactory image of something or someone I've seen in the past.

This has proved something of a handicap in certain areas of activity. I didn't understand it at the time because I assumed I was no different from anyone else, but with hindsight it explains why I almost always came bottom of the class in Art at school. We'd be asked to draw a picture of an animal - a dog, perhaps - and because there wasn't actually a dog in the room to act as a model, my dog would look like no dog you (or I, for that matter) have ever seen. I was aware that a dog had a head and a body and four legs and a tail, and I even had a rough idea of how they must fit together, with the head at the front and the tail at the back and the legs supporting the body. But that was about it. The head was a particular problem: how on earth were the ears and the eyes and the nose and the mouth positioned relative to each other?

I can, however, recognise a dog when I see one in the street, and on the whole I have comparatively little difficulty distinguishing between different kinds of dog. And I usually have no difficulty recognising people I know, even if I can't always remember their names. (Sigh!) However, if I arrange to meet someone I've just met for the first time, I'm always worried that I won't recognise them again. This was particularly terrifying when I was younger and had invited a girl out on a first date. Would I ruin my chances by walking straight past her? I'd have an idea of her approximate height and build - and maybe, if I'd really been paying attention, the colour of her hair - but again that was about it, and I'd have to hope that that would be enough. Or better still that she'd recognise me first. In practice I never seemed to have any problem - it was just that I couldn't conjure up a mental image of her. I can't even, as I write, conjure up a proper mental image of my wife, and we've been married nearly 35 years.

I can form a kind of vague mental image of a simple object. For example, I can sort-of picture an orange, but it's a fuzzy, greyish image of something round with an indentation in the middle, and it's almost certainly a mental construction from what I know about oranges rather than an eidetic image. When I think of how to spell a word, I'm vaguely conscious of a similar fuzzy, greyish image of the letters, and that's clearly not an eidetic image either. Looking as far back as I can remember, I've always been hopeless at drawing and painting pictures, and I've always been good at spelling, and it seems possible that the two are connected: that the latter ability is the brain somehow compensating for the former inability. Which raises the question (and I'm now straying even further into the area of idle speculation): if I'd been good at Art, would I perhaps not have been quite as good at solving crosswords?

I said that I almost always recognise people I know, but there have been one or two notable exceptions. One of the women who used to be involved in organising the Times Crossword Championship, in the days when it was sponsored by Cutty Sark, used to travel regularly on the Central Line (as I did at the time), and each year she'd tell me of the times I'd cut her dead on her journey to or from work. Now it's possible that I have a double, but she's not an isolated case and I suspect I simply failed to recognise her. So if I cut you dead at this year's Championship, please don't take offence. (I may of course recognise you but fail to remember your name. That's a different problem, but I hope you won't take offence at that either.)

Current Location: Ealing

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