Using an allusion to a gallery of portraits on the wall, Jonathon Cole describes how John Hull lost his visual memories of frequent companions before those of people he hadn’t met since going blind:
He found that the people he had met before going blind had faces but those since blindess did not, and he found it very difficult to relate the two groups to each other. As time passed the gallery became barer. In the first three years of blindness the pictures of those he had known before but had not encountered during that time were still on the wall, but those of the people he meet everyday were not. He was replacing their visual iconic memory with something more dependent on his continued experience of them.
Most distressing was that he was beginning to forget what his wife and children looked like. He had sworn to himself that he would carry their faces forever, even if everything else in the gallery was stolen.
It seems that his brain’s record of his close companions and family was replaced by repeated exposure to alternative sensory images of them, more than for those for which no displacing perception was being received.
This is to me another striking, if tragic, anecdote of the plasticity of the brain, even into middle age (John was in his late 40s at that time).
It raises interesting questions about how we remember those people (and possibly also things) that we encounter frequently.
(Updated to fix broken image, March 13th 2011.)
Source: About face, Jonathon Cole, 1998 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (ISBN 10: 0262032465)
Cole’s book is an exploration of all aspects of faces, including their anatomy; how we “pull” faces, smiles, and other gestures; losing faces; being unable to recognise others’ faces and cultural issues.