Prosopagnosia - Face Blindness: Background information when reading Holding Up the Universe

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Holding Up the Universe

by Jennifer Niven

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven X
Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Published:
    Oct 2016, 400 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

Buy This Book

About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Prosopagnosia - Face Blindness

Print Review

ProsopagnosiaJack Masselin, the young man in Jennifer Niven's Holding Up the Universe, suffers from prosopagnosia, commonly called face blindness. It's a neurological disorder that affects the way people perceive faces – or more precisely, the way they can't. What that means is that Jack cannot even recognize his own face – as distinct from anybody else's – in a mirror. When a woman walks into his bedroom at home he has to look for clues – clothing, hairstyle and color, voice – to be able to tell whether it's his mother or some other woman.

Prosopagnosia (prosopon for face, agnosia for not knowing) is a disorder that affects as much as 2% of the general population, but estimates vary. So far there is no cure, which is not surprising because research has been sparse – there are only about 100 documented case studies worldwide in medical literature – and it has been difficult to find prosopagnosiacs on which to conduct research. Unless you know you have it, how can you volunteer to be studied? The Internet has improved researchers' ability to connect with subjects and more studies are expected to be forthcoming.

What we know is that it can either be acquired, from a blow or some other trauma to the head, or from a stroke, at any point in a person's life beginning in infancy. It can also be congenital, resulting, they believe, from prenatal brain trauma affecting the fusiform gyrus region, located just behind the right and left ears. In Jack's case, it likely resulted from a fall when he was six years old that required several stitches behind his right ear.

As with anything having to do with the brain, prosopagnosia is highly complex and symptoms may apply to simply facial recognition, all the way to species or object identification, to navigational problems. Many people don't even know they have it. If onset began early enough in life, a person has no way of knowing that the way they see faces is unusual. Most people, parents included, don't talk about how they recognize faces, they just do. So prosopagnosiacs develop clever strategies to identify people. But if someone changes hair color, or loses or gains weight, or in one way or another changes these "markers", the prosopagnosiac is lost.

Of course people with the disorder must find ways to adapt, but not surprisingly, many become reclusive and clinically depressed. Social situations can cause panic as identical face after identical face passes in front of them and they are unable to keep up with the kaleidoscope of indistinguishable visages. Others, such as Jack, become super witty, charming and breezy, but armed with quick escape plans should they feel pressed into identifying someone in particular.

Several well-known and successful people have or have had prosopagnosia including Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden; neuroscientist Oliver Sacks; English comedian Stephen Fry, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple; British playwright Tom Stoppard; and Chuck Close, American painter and photographer. Heather Sellers wrote a memoir, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, about her own experience with it. One tongue-in-cheek 2013 Slate.com columnist speculated that the ability to inflict people with prosopagnosia is one of Superman's superpowers. Why else, the author guessed, wouldn't the super observant journalists and photographers at the Daily Planet not recognize the bespectacled Clark Kent as the Man of Steel? Hey. It's a theory.

Image courtesy of prosopagnosiaresearch.org

Article by Donna Chavez

This article is from the November 16, 2016 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access become a member today.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: Killers of the Flower Moon
    Killers of the Flower Moon
    by David Grann
    Voted 2017 Best Nonfiction by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    The long, sorrowful list of injustices done ...
  • Book Jacket: The Dry
    The Dry
    by Jane Harper
    Voted 2017 Best Debut Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    After receiving a letter from his childhood...
  • Book Jacket: Little Fires Everywhere
    Little Fires Everywhere
    by Celeste Ng
    Voted 2017 Best Fiction by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    Small towns, big drama. Acclaimed author ...
  • Book Jacket: La Belle Sauvage
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

"Electrifying . . . as beautiful and as icy as the Minnesota woods where it's set."
—NPR

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg

    An emotionally powerful novel from New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Autumn

Autumn by Ali Smith

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, and a Man Booker Prize Finalist

Enter

Word Play

The Big Holiday Wordplay: $400+ in Prizes

Enter Now

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.