Milla Jovovich takes a break from blasting off zombie heads in the popular Resident Evil series to take on the roll of victim and hero Anna Marchant in the recently released Faces in the Crowd (2011). A horror-thriller we simply had to see, Faces in the Crowd adopts as its premise a very uncommon yet well studied neuropsychological phenomena- -that of face blindness or ‘Prosopagnosia’. In the film, Anna Marchant’s simple life is suddenly shaken when she unwittingly stumbles across an elusive serial murderer engaged in a diabolical deed. Facing (heh) the infamous killer, she attempts to flee but falls off a bridge, hitting her head on the way down. She survives the fall and emerges from the hospital as the only living person to have seen the killer. Naturally, she becomes a valuable resource to the authorities investigating the serial killer’s case. The problem, however, is that she can no longer recognize faces! Such a curious deficit allows the writers of Faces in the Crowd (2011) to introduce all sorts of high adrenaline hjinks in which Anna is hunted by an assailant she has seen but can no longer recognize.
Prosopagnosia is a neuropsychological impairment that results from damage to the temporal lobe of the brain—a region that appears to be specialized for processing objects and faces. Commonly, patients with prosopagnosia can see just fine—there is no problem with vision. In fact, they can continue to recognize objects by sight, and often don’t have a problem recognizing people by their voices or bodily movements. This bizarre condition seems to be specific the visual recognition of people’s faces. Indeed, they can tell the thing they are looking at is a face but can’t tell whose face it is. It is as though they are unable to put all the parts—the eyes, the nose, the mouth—together in a unified, integrated perception. Some patients have even reported the curious inability to recognize themselves in a mirror! For most of us, this phenomenon is particularly difficult to imagine and we’re not sure how useful Faces in the Crowd is at providing first-person insight into this bizarre deficit (example here); unlike Anna Marchant’s problem, for instance, prosopagosics are not challenged with an ever changing stream of actors. Despite this, Faces in the Crowd does encourage us to reflect on the remarkable ability of the brain to distinguish and recognize people by their faces, a skill that seems to rely on specialized neural circuits and one that is so effortless we take for granted. As the psychiatrist in the film emphasizes, “faces are the barcode of the human race”, and this is something that deficits like prosopagnosia reveal in staggering detail.
For more on the science of prosopagnosia, see here
For more on Faces in the Crowd (2011) see here
References:DeWalt, K et al. (Producers), Magnat, J. (Director). (2011).Faces in the Crowd [Motion picture]. United States: Forecast Pictures