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Art of many faceless people standing in a crowd

‘Do I Know You?’ explores face blindness and the science of the mind

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Do I Know You?
Sadie Dingfelder
Little, Brown Spark, $32

A friend and I recently stumbled into a conversation about inner monologues. He referred to nearly constant chatter, in his own voice, as if it were normal. My inner monologue? Largely nonexistent. I don’t usually hear internal words, and I certainly don’t hear my own voice. At least not as he described. I found myself struggling to explain exactly what’s going on in my mind when I think something or read something. We both came away puzzled and entertained by the other’s experience.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this conversation primed me for science journalist Sadie Dingfelder’s hilarious and philosophical memoir, Do I Know You? “The variety of ways people experience being awake and alive,” Dingfelder writes, “is, frankly, mind-boggling.”

Over the course of 300 pages, Dingfelder proves this point again and again, using her own highly unusual mind as a key piece of evidence. She is unable to recognize people’s faces. She also can’t see depth, lacks the ability to create mental images and has trouble with memory. Her way of perceiving the world is probably not like yours.

Throughout the book, Dingfelder covers the history of psychology and neuroscience, compelling case studies of other interesting minds and the latest brain science (SN: 3/21/24). With this sweeping context and well-chosen anecdotes from her own life, some absurd and some powerful, Dingfelder does her best to show us what it’s like inside her mind. It’s fascinating in there.

Dingfelder didn’t realize how different her perception of the world might be until she was middle-aged, when she applied her reporter instincts to some of her more bizarre experiences. The resulting revelation sparked her “nerdy midlife crisis,” a journey of identifying and understanding these differences.
Dingfelder aggressively pursues a scientific description of her brain. She volunteers for research studies, undergoes brain scans, takes vision tests, plays virtual reality games and scores a beeper that she wears for a few hours each week, intermittently prompting her to record every bit of her conscious experience.

We’re there when she learns she is a certified prosopagnosiac, a person unable to recognize faces (SN: 11/19/12). This insight explains some of the more puzzling encounters she has had throughout her life: why she ignored an old friend in a grocery store, why she accosted a stranger over peanut butter (he was wearing a coat similar to her husband’s) and why she mistook her aunt for her mother (only briefly; her aunt had changed her hair).

After a lot of conflicting emotions, Dingfelder eventually takes this diagnosis in stride and even lays out some upsides: She credits her sense of humor to the condition, because “you can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re constantly making silly mistakes.” She’s impressively adaptable because her condition often lands her in unfamiliar spots. And she’s learned to pay close attention and ask lots of questions. “This is basically the job description for being a reporter,” she writes.

The plethora of scientific studies Dingfelder participates in reveal quirks that go beyond face blindness. Further testing confirms that she can’t see depth, a difference made clear through her vivid and harrowing descriptions of learning to drive a busted-up 1988 Ford F-150. She also can’t create images in her mind’s eye. “Things that I thought were just figures of speech — daydreaming, imaginary friends, undressing someone with your eyes, counting sheep — are much more real than I realized,” she writes. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Dingfelder’s writing is funny, poignant, philosophical and almost euphoric. The memoir is a beautiful reminder that our inner lives are not uniform. None of us can possibly know what it feels like to be someone else, but as Dingfelder shows, it’s fun to try.

Buy Do I Know You? from Bookshop.org. Science News is a Bookshop.org affiliate and will earn a commission on purchases made from links in this article.

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