Tag Archives: topographical memory

Bean Damage

Recently, I began talking to a woman on Pink Sofa* who suffers from a mild case of prosopagnosia. In other words: face blindess. Oddly, it’s a lot less rare than people think, and up to 2.5% of the population (including Brad Pitt, and Oliver Sacks – the neurologist who famously wrote a book of essays entitled ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’) have this condition, where they have an impaired ability to recognise people they have met before, even their own friends and family.

There are two types of prosopagnosia: congenital and acquired (either through stroke or brain injury). In Sacks’ case it was hereditary. I’m not sure about Brad Pitt, but I suspect he was probably born with it too. My friend on Pink Sofa was in a car accident; and her symptoms were so subtle that she didn’t think anything was wrong with her, until she realised that two new acquaintances she’d recently met at separate slimming clubs, were actually the same person AND this person was a work colleague.

The thing is, even though I mostly struggle with other aspects of visual processing such as topography and spatial awareness, I can strongly relate to the difficulties that people with prosopagnosia experience: For example, I have lost count of the number of the times I’ve bypassed people in the steet who I’ve simply not recognised; or I’ve tried to talk to a complete stranger because I thought I knew them; and often people will accost me in the street, and I’ll find myself nodding and agreeing with them and pretending I know who they are and what they’re talking about, because it’s easier and less embarrassing to say otherwise. Because people often get very offended when you don’t remember them. And they think it’s because you’re rude or self-obsessed or (at best) uninterested in them, especially if you’ve met them more than once.

Years ago, I left my then-girlfriend waiting for me outside a shop in Glasgow Buchanan Bus Station whilst I went to use the loo, and when I re-emerged I couldn’t find her because I not only forgot which direction I was meant to be heading in, but what she looked like! She was mortified to say the least and she ranted on at great length about how she couldn’t believe I’d walked right past her, and how could I not recall her

She just didn’t get it. But then most people don’t. Which why it’s often easier to just feign ditziness, to pretend you’re busy in your own wee world.

Another thing that me and my new friend from Pink Sofa have in common is that we both have difficulty following films and TV programmes. Usually I muddle through, relying on accents, hairstyles, clothing and distinctive hats, but there have been a few things I’ve found particularly challenging to watch: ‘The Passion Of Christ’ was one of them – simply because the characters were mostly middle-aged men with beards and I couldn’t tell which one was Jesus! Another was the American gangland drama, ‘The Wire,’ because most of the characters were all young black men with cornrows and I kept getting confused with who was in who’s gang; the principal detective was white so I was able to differentiate between him and the people he was trying to arrest; it was a wee bit trickier, however, with the two leading ladies in the show who were both red heads.

Whenever I go to potlucks or social gatherings I try to transfer my TV-watching strategies to recognising people I’ve already met, but you can’t pause or rewind real life; and as Antonia recently pointed out ‘people don’t always wear the same hat’. They don’t always have the same haircut either; and there’s always the chance that someone I know will get a mohawk or dye their bonce a different colour and if that happens I’ll just have to deal with it as best as I can.

And if I do happen to dither on past you as I’m trying to navigate around town, please don’t be insulted. And, if in doubt, do re-introduce yourself.

A Life Less Orderly


Yesterday I locked myself out of the flat for the second time in six days (the other time was fifteen minutes after the letting agent handed me the keys, and five minutes after she vacated the property). Now I know that it can happen to anyone, but that’s small comfort for someone with a brain injury who has a rather severe topographical memory impairment (inability to recognise buildings and other visual landmarks or read maps so basically all places either look the same or unlike anywhere I’ve ever been), because it can be really really confusing not to mention slightly traumatic. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, I had a full bladder and a bag filled with frozen veg.

Luckily for me, Antonia’s mother (Nikki) owns The Cabin, an icecream shed situated in Bell Vue Park which is just a few minutes along the road. This is one of the three places I have actually managed to learn how to get to and from on my own (the others being Caffe Nero and the gym respectively), so I was able to walk there and deposit my wares in amongst the icelollies.

Antonia was also pleased to see me because she’d been working there all day and hadn’t had a chance to go for a pee; and it was the first time there had been a lull in the neverending barrage of icecream-guzzling school children who were taking advantage of the sunshine during their summer holidays. So, like the nice friendly girlfriend I am, I agreed to keep an eye on things for five minutes. More fool me. Because as soon as my bean’s back was turned, customers began swooping in like vultures. And, of course, even though she’d shown me how to work the till the day before, the information didn’t stick; and this resulted in me pressing several wrong buttons and being short-changed by sixty pee – shame on you lady who bought the caramel cornettos.

Really, I should have known better than to have expected my ‘shift’ to have gone smoothly: about fifteen years ago, back when I was in rehab (that’s brain injury rehab not the one for drink or drugs) I did some unpaid work experience in Borders Books And Music in Glasgow and I was pretty hopeless then when it came to working the till, because whenever there was a queue (almost all the time) I would get flustered and fumble with the money and end up dropping it on the floor.

Despite this I was actually offered a job in Borders because my department (poetry and drama) sold thirty percent more books during the six weeks that I was working there – I now realise that it could have been because I was buying the books quicker than I was shelving them. And the job would have worked out fine if only they’d left me alphabetising plays and chatting to customers about Sylvia Plath and Benjamin Zephaniah. But no, they had me wandering around eight different floors trying to locate books for people who were too lazy to look themselves, and then they tried to foist a pager on me that I didn’t know how to answer. So when the job offer coincided with the news that booksellers would soon be doubling as baristas in Borders’ adjacent café, I politely declined and went back to college to do an HNC in Professional Writing Skills – and it was probably the right decision because the bookshop is, sadly, no longer there.

I eventually got back into my house several hours later. And the front gate was mysteriously open. Antonia thinks I was turning the handle the wrong way. I don’t. But I suppose it’s a possibility. It’s the sort of thing that would happen to me.