“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks contains a chapter titled “The President’s Speech”. In it he discusses aphasia, which makes people unable to understand the meaning of words even as they (sometimes misleadingly) respond to tone of voice or body language. In that sense they have been compared to dogs (which Sacks notes may be unflattering to both). He feels “one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision”. That sounds wrong to me. When I am irritated by a dog, sometimes I like to adopt a friendly voice & face while insulting it. I have never noticed them displaying any awareness of my actual attitude, nor do others observing. Just as we have the evolved the ability to deceive others and detect deception through words, so have we done for non-verbal communication. Aphasiacs do not have some extra function unknown in humans, they just need to rely on it more. We might analogize them to the color-blind, who have been used by the military to spot camouflage since they are unfazed by certain surface similarities. This does not mean they cannot be fooled by appearances.

I learned from this podcast featuring face-blind portrait artist Chuck Close that Oliver Sacks also has prosopagnosia (though to a lesser extent). The titular opening chapter of the book is about a man who also had that condition, and throughout Sacks treats him as an exotic specimen without indicating that he himself shares any of the same symptoms. Nor does he do so elsewhere. At least up to where I’ve read.

The title of this post is a reference to a boring excisable part of the Moody Blues song “The Question”. I once made some edits in my own copy to just retain the up-tempo portions, though it was lost when my hard-drive failed.

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