Monday, April 24, 2006

What Is Paraprosopia?

Donald Hoffman is professor of cognitive science, philosophy, and computer science at the University of California, Irvine. His 1998 book, “Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See,” is an extraordinary review of how ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ components of the human brain and body work together to process perceptions into the end-results we experience in our consciousness. Many things we know about how normal perceptions appear to our consciousness come from careful study of how dysfunctional perceptions appear to people afflicted by damage to specific parts of their brain, or people who have unusual perceptions because of genetic variance to their brain or nervous system. One such dysfunction is called, ‘paraprosopia.’ Hoffman writes:

“…The visual world doesn’t come prepackaged into objects and parts. You create your visual world and you create its objects and parts. Because of the care you take in creating your parts, they serve you well as you try to navigate through your visual world and recognize its objects. You have countless ways you could in principle create parts. Most would be useless. But the way your visual intelligence creates parts has, as we have seen, the right magic.

“This magic can get out of hand, as it does for schizophrenics with ‘paraprosopia.’ When these schizophrenics look at a face, or a photograph of a face, they see it at first as normal. Then, within seconds, the face transforms before their eyes into a fiendish monster, vampire, werewolf, or devil. The transformation is not a simple distortion of the whole face, such as a stretching or twisting. Instead it is a set of distinct, part-by-part distortions; different parts distort in different ways. The teeth grow into fangs, hair stands up on end, eyebrows become busy, and the eyes grow large and threatening. This is a sophisticated, and horrifying, recreating of the parts of the face.”

The most interesting thing about paraprosopia, at least in the context of goblin studies, is a question which Hoffman doesn’t ask. Before I ask it, let me set up my thinking.

Looking at people who experience their perceptions in a dysfunctional way, there seems to be a pattern. A woman with damage to her brain may have very vivid hallucinations of, for instance, seeing her dog which died years before. The hallucinations may be so vivid she not only sees the dog, but also hears it and even pets the dog, feeling it at her fingers as if it were real. A man with synesthesia may see a visual image and, at the same time, hear a spurious audible sound, for instance, he may see a cloud moving across the sky and hear a puffing sound, like a steam locomotive.

The common thread here is that the dysfunction isn’t in what the person experiences, but in the fact that the experience happens at an anomalous time – seeing and petting a dog isn’t dysfunctional, those of us with dogs do it every day. It is dysfunctional, however, if we see and feel a dog when no dog is with us. Hearing train sounds isn’t dysfunctional, those of us who live near train stations hear trains every day. It is dysfunctional if we hear train sounds when no train is near us.

What if we extend this thread to paraprosopia . . . Shall we infer that seeing a person’s face shapeshift into a demon or beast isn’t dysfunctional per se, but rather is dysfunctional only when a person sees shapeshifting when, for instance, no werewolf is in front of them?

The question can be phrased in a more provocative manner.

Writing twenty years or so before Hoffman, a psychologist named
Jaynes characterized the neurological ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ combinations which shape our experiences as ‘aptic structures,’ because these ‘organizations of the brain’ evolved to make us ‘apt’ to behave in certain ways under certain conditions. The best question, then, of paraprosopia is: Would human beings have evolved aptic structures that allow us to see shapeshifting if seeing shapeshifting didn’t provide us with some evolutionary advantage? (You can’t run away from a werewolf if you can’t see a werewolf . . .)

(Coming tomorrow: Sally Gorgon And The Shattered Werewolf)

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