This post is in the Local Coherence category

The Mind in the Face - Members of Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre

"The Mind in the Face" - Members of Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre

Many people with ASD have problems with faces. Prosopagnosia refers to difficulty recognising both familiar and unfamiliar faces, which is a separate issue to processing the parts of the face that distort to form expression  (Barton, 2003; Kätsyri, Saalasti, Tiippana, von Wendt, & Sams, 2008; Njiokiktjien et al., 2001; Pietz, Ebinger, & Rating, 2003). The Cambridge designed Reading the Mind in the Face (Jolliffe & Baron-Cohen, 1999) and especially the Reading the Mind in the Eyes (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste, & Plumb, 2001) tests showed significant deficits in my own perceptions of emotion. Self testing via the on-line tests at the website maintained by the Prosopagnosia Research Centres of Harvard and University College London also indicates that I am in the “seek further investigation, would you be prepared to be further involved in our research?” category for faceblindness.

Plaisted (2003) suggests faceblindness and expression blindness are related to an imbalanced local/global coherence in the perceptual domain, as the brain process parts of the face, but does not put them together to form the concept of identity or assimilate the features that form expressions and carry emotion. While some individuals may be strongly affected in this domain, there is, like most aspects of autistic traits, a spectrum of ability or impairment. Many people comment, “oh I’m not good with names” when they may mean that they have not processed the face, thus not making the mnemonic link. I found an interesting blog post related to this which suggests that there may be several neural pathways involved:

Inadverently, I memorize complex but insiginificant data. I can ‘play back’ certain temporal moments in my head. I am very aware of the NT trait (which they apparently do unconsciously) of assigning meaning, judgment, critique, to their sensory awareness, which, I promise, will be an obstacle for their observations and, consequently, memory recall. I have a hard time recognizing faces since I do not associate an identity with their visual data. This can be embarrassing socially  (LabPet, January 9, 2007).

I know that in my own life the facial processing has both an identity and a communication aspect. I take a very long time to get to know individuals with whom I have contact. In my first year of teaching in my present position one of my class of forty students wrote on a student survey “Colin should really know our names after eight weeks”. After eight weeks I knew about half the class – mostly those who had distinctive dress or hair, or who frequently sought me out. In any of my classes there will be about a third who all look similar enough to me that I will still be looking for their name tag by the end of semester. Unfortunately this “identity crisis” does not end with familiarity. My irrational mind will not allow me to accept that I will know those closest to me. I have not yet mistaken someone else for my wife, but I fear that I will. I have made that mistake with my children.

A post has been included that expresses a personal view of this matter. Hi. Do I know you is a re-working of a diary entry that I wrote after a particularly disturbing series of incidents in a single day. I had not recognised a colleague of several years who I saw on an almost weekly basis. She had cut her hair, and the meeting was not planned. I then arranged to meet my family after work at a shopping centre. Because I did not know if the children would be in school uniforms or home clothes, I panicked, cancelled an appointment and arrived an hour early to assure myself that I would be in place for them to find me. Ultimately I heard my son’s voice before I saw and knew him.

For an individual with a local / global coherence imbalance, understanding facial expression  requires a cognitive, often conscious effort to process the parts of the face into a meaningful whole. In short, an expression is seen as a set of features that require access to an analysis to interpret, for example, the smiling mouth must be compared with the eyes and body position and checked against memory and experience. Facial recognition processing appears to take place in the fusiform gyrus area of the brain and prosopagnosia is commonly a result of damage to this area. Studies have revealed that, although activity in the fusiform gyrus are quantitatively different in ASD individual’s responses to familiar and unknown faces, there are more complex pathway issues involved  (Hadjikhani et al., 2004; Pierce & Redcay, 2008). Previous posts have indicated that certain memories, emotional memories, are held in the more ancient parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, where they are accessed quickly and subconsciously, partly explaining the so called intuitive response. Access to these may be inhibited in ASD and a stronger reliance made on the slower cognitive memory and processing of the cerebral cortex. Recognition and response to facial expression is easier in people who are very familiar and for whom a large bank of data is held in memory for comparison, and a stranger’s face can be seen as somewhat blank and benign, especially if the person is speaking and attention is given to the words. This compartmentalisation of sensory input is also a product of strong Local Coherence – with the preferred modality – in my case audio – being strongly selected for processing. My own recognition of expression is slow and limited, and so is my making of expression, as it also requires a cognitive effort to generate the appropriate combination of muscle movement.

This discussion of Local Coherence of the face leads us to the subject of the following chapter – Empathy. Facial expressivity, as a primary mode of non-verbal communication, is thought to be one of the modes of stimulus to empathy, particularly the extremely fast, intuitive processing associated with emotional transmission.

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