Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Tasting Notes
As far as I can tell from online tests such as this one, I have a bad case of prosopagnosia, and am much less able than the average person to recognize people I know. On the other hand, according to this test my colour recognition is very good (I scored 3). No doubt there are many other dimensions along with our sensory worlds could be measured, with widely conflicting results. We each inhabit a sensory idioverse.

Given that, it's perhaps strange that we are able to recognize other people's accounts of their experience in our own - but as Wittgenstein pointed out, and no doubt others before him, we may be systematically misunderstanding as we go, translating others' accounts into something we can conceive happening to us.

It's when we attempt to apply objective standards to sensory experience that things become tricky - for example, when we talk of good taste or bad taste. How can we discuss someone's taste in music or art, when we don't know what they're hearing or seeing? They may like works that we also admire, but if we could hear/see them as they do, we might discover those same works to be in very bad taste by our own standards. Should we then say that our tastes coincide, or not?

Another complicating factor is that tastes change, in at least three different ways.

a) Sometimes the change is in the reception equipment: I used to hate olives; now I like them. I don't think this represents a change in aesthetics so much as a change in my physical taste receptors (though probably that is not the only factor).
b) Sometimes the change is in one's aesthetics. I listened to a lot of prog rock in the '70s that now strikes me as dull. For better or worse, I appear to have imbibed that definitive change in popular taste.
c) Sometimes taste is changed by training: learning the piano has taught me to listen to piano music more discerningly, I'd like to think. Conversely, I've carefully avoided training my palate to enjoy good wine (not that opportunities have been abundant), because I don't want to be put off the kind I can actually afford.

Plotting the relationships between these different types of change is no easy matter.

Some aspects of taste arguably don't rely on our senses but on internal properties. A preference for symmetry or for the Golden Section may indeed be universal and hardwired. But if we can only perceive them by means of sensory equipment that is unreliable, and if even our mental contemplation of them draws on that unreliable experience (as it does in my case - I can't think about the Golden Section without picturing it at least as a diagrammatic image) this isn't as much of a get-out as it appears.

When I first heard of prosopagnosia as a thing, it explained SO MUCH about my life. I'm good at faking it, by making friends with very distinctive-looking people and by memorising hair, movement, and collectionsof features. I mean, it's not as bad as some people--I have had trouble picking out myself in pictures, but only seldom--but I'm pretty sure it's there.

I rely on hair a lot too. If a student changes their hair style I often fail to recognize from one class to the next. I'm heavily reliant on context of all sorts: I once failed to recognize my step-daughter when she served me coffee at a cafe, because I wasn't expecting to see her there.

I have a slightly different problem. I usually recognise people out of context, but then have no clue as to where I know them from. Mostly it's because I taught them, but when you teach adults in a small town, you are likely to find yourself being served by a student at a supermarket checkout or find that they are about to take your blood pressure. I therefore see a familiar face and I know I know them, but cannot be sure why!

However, I did once fail to recognise my niece on the stairs at the hotel where we were staying for our son's wedding. In my defence, the last time I'd seen her (a couple of years previously) she had had black hair and looked very goth. The girl on the stairs was blond. At least now Facebook enables me to keep up with my relatives changes in appearance. :)

Oh, thank God for hair.

I suppose as a Brit you are more used to school uniforms than I, even if your university students presumably don't wear them. But for me, as an American, I was kind of horrified when I came to Singapore and realized that all of my students were going to be dressing the same way and restricted to a relatively narrow number of possible hairstyles. At least now that I teach at a boy's school their hair doesn't vary too much between school and the outside world, but when I occasionally see my previous female students out and about on the street wearing regular human clothing and non-tied up hair, I have no idea whatsoever who they are, and it's profoundly embarrassing.

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I have terrible trouble recognizing people out of context. I always blamed it on my nearsightedness until I read about this.

BTW, a very old subject, I've been paying attention to the ringing of my knives. It's when I pick them up from the drawer or the tile, if they've been set out to dry. It only takes the tiniest contact with a hard surface to make them ring, but ring they do.

I did pretty well on the test, which surprised me, because recognizing people out of context has always been a problem for me as well. The problem with the test for me is that it's not out of context. It has the known context of "this is a photo of a celebrity" and once you've gotten one or two you'll know what kind of celebrity they have in mind.

Many seem to have a hard time grasping the notion that different people really do taste foods differently, even though in some cases it can be traced to a genetic marker. My preferred analogy is height. Telling somebody, "I like this food, so your claimed dislike must be a phobia or prejudice you should just overcome" is like a 7-foot-tall person telling a 5-foot-tall person "I can reach this high shelf, so you could reach it too if you'd just try harder."

Where aesthetic tastes come from I'm less sure, though they seem also to genuinely differ. Regarding the phenomenon of finding you dislike a work you used to like, you must, if you haven't already, be introduced to the concept of the Suck Fairy.

Regarding food, I'm guessing the more common pathway is one like you've described: once disliking a food and coming to like it. In my case that's more taking the form of finding in adulthood that I could tolerate, if not really enjoy, something I found utterly repulsive as a child. That, I have no doubt, is simply due to the weakening of the taste sensory receptors with age, the same thing that happens with sight, hearing, and everything else.

I'm surprised at the scepticism re. taste, since many if not most people have experience of it themselves, not only through comparing their own child and adult tastes but through the experience of illness and pregnancy, which are well known for altering one's tastes quite radically.

I agree about the prosopagnosia test. There used to be a much better one online, which I can't find now, that didn't have that issue. On that, I scored far worse than on this one.

Read the comments on this discussion of cilantro and you'll find a distressingly large number of people whose reaction to a known and widespread genetic-based aversion is to tell the sufferers to just suck it up and try the food again and again until you like it, because you're just not trying hard enough.

The cilantro thing is complicated by the fact that some of us who presumably don't have the genetic tastes-like-soap thing DID dislike cilantro at first and then got to like it.


Some. But for somebody to whom it tastes so deeply foul as to be indescribable, which is most of them, it's never going to happen.

You do see the fallacy in the argument? It's most commonly seen in the economic form of "I pulled myself up by the bootstraps from poverty into success, so anybody else who fails to do it is just lazy."

Well, now I've gone back to the NYT article, and wow, I see what you mean, that was really condescending. I only meant there was some excuse for the people who didn't know about the genetic basis for the difference in taste, not the ones who did and chose to think it wasn't really a full explanation.

I can't stand people who insist that I just need to eat more spicy food and I'll get used to it. First of all, I've tried eating spicy foods loads of times. I know I have higher tolerance now than I did fifteen years ago. It's just still really, really low by most people's standards. Secondly, I do not understand what the benefit of eating spicy food is. It is something that hurts and causes me pain, and then, if I get used to it enough by experiencing a significant that I no longer feel it, it doesn't actually add anything to the food, so why bother experiencing the pain for absolutely no gain whatosever?

But, you know, I assume that other people actually have a very different experience of eating spicy food than I do. Probably they feel less pain, and there's something that they actually enjoy about the experience. They certainly don't believe me when I describe my experience of intense agony mixed with absolutely no pleasure. . . .

I am a known eater of spicy food and I won't tell you that. I can eat less spicy, you can't eat more spicy, so if I dine with you, your preferences take priority.

What I can tell you is my experience, which is that spice applied well intensifies the flavor, which, as an older person with decaying taste buds, I appreciate. Mind you, it's not always applied well. There's a Chinese restaurant locally famed for its spiciness which, I found, just dumps most of a bottle of chili flakes over everything. That's just wrong, and I soon ceased eating there.

I got 19 out of 30. Some I was surprised to get. Some I was surprised not to.

This episode of Radio Lab, the second story in it (reported by a friend of mine) is an amazing story of prosopoagnosia.

That's a great show! And a very nice story. I was only thrown out of it when the woman reported that she and the man talked through fresh manure (as I heard it - freshman year, I realised seconds later). But mondegreens are a whole other perceptual kettle of fish...

I got a 4 on the color acuity test and 96% on the Famous Faces test, but I don't think that's accurate. Or, rather, I can believe that I'm very good at recognizing famous people whose pictures I've seen literally hundreds of times, but I really do have trouble committing people's faces to memory in my everyday life. I rely so heavily on context, and even then it doesn't always work.

At the Irish cultural center here in Philadelphia, for example, there are these three men who don't really look alike at all, but for some reason, until very recently, I just could not securely attach the three names to the three faces; I would run into one of them and think, "Shit! Is that Frank, Rich, or Jerry?!" And of course, since they really DON'T look anything alike, I could hardly make a joke about how I "knew it had to be one of the three of ye!"

Coming a bit late to this discussion: I only do a bit under par at prosopagnosia tests but I do have a good deal of social anxiety about not recognising people I should know. This can lead to me staring at people or trying to get a better look at them just in case I'm in danger of snubbing an old friend or, worse, an old flame. Back to the test, the mixture of contempary and older pictures was the cause of at least two of my fails: I didn't recognise Madonna at all and misidentified Oprah Winfrey for Michelle Obama.

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