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If You Buy Into This 'Vacation,' I've Got Some Swampland . . .

March 20, 2000|JOEL GREENBERG | TIMES SCIENCE/MEDICINE EDITOR

I've finally found my psychiatric diagnosis. All these years, I suspected there was something just a little off and now I know: I'm a prosopagnosiac.

This was revealed to me at a seminar at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library by the nation's top psychiatrist, Dr. Steven E. Hyman, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Prosopagnosia is a condition, as he described it, in which a person has trouble recognizing human faces but has no such difficulty with animals.

A prosopagnosiac can pick out the real Lassie from her stand-in at 200 yards but doesn't know Julia Roberts from Rosie O'Donnell. A form of the condition was depicted in Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat."

I'm not that bad. I occasionally can't quite place a face; or I place the face of an animal on a person. I once told a former colleague that she looked like my dog, Woody, and was surprised when she seemed offended. She later realized that was my highest compliment after viewing a picture of Woody and sensing my, um, off-center view of the human-dog continuum.

Because I consider myself something of an expert on behavioral sciences, I plan to offer Hyman a broader definition of prosopagnosia. I believe it applies to more than just faces.

Space stations, for example. Take Mir, the Russian space station. Please.

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Only a prosopagnosiac could see anything attractive in this floating skid row that has been blighting our near-Earth-orbit neighborhood for years. Old, broken down, dirty and literally a firetrap, it was destined for a final, fiery descent through our atmosphere, where most of it would be--appropriately--incinerated, with the remainder plopping into the Pacific Ocean.

That was its fate until a group of space-age slumlords--I mean, investors--announced last month that they plan to salvage Mir in orbit as a vacation destination. MirCorp, the company behind the venture, signed a $20-million deal to rent Mir and turn the aging space station into a holiday spot.

MirCorp bought the rights from former Russian state agency RSC Energia, which also has a stake in the new venture. RSC Energia must be kicking itself for all those wasted years denouncing capitalism.

Tourists will be asked to pay $20 million a head to visit the space station, which measures five school buses in size.

This news sent me scurrying to e-mail a friend at the mental health institute to see if prosopagnosia extended to inanimate objects or if it was particularly prevalent among the rich. That is the only audience I could see going for this extraterrestrial scam.

Only someone with $20 million who sees Aaron Spelling's spread when he looks at an outhouse would fork out that kind of money to visit Mir--spiffed up or not.

That may describe the Russian actor who has already asked to be the first Mir tourist, has been in space training for months, but may not be able to raise the money in time. Yes, unless you're Shaquille O'Neal or heavily moneyed in other ways, that would be a problem.

But even if you have the money, who would want to spend the dollar equivalent of at least 2,000 trips to Tahiti to visit a 120-mile-high rat trap?

The results of my query to the mental health institute suggest there can be only one answer: a prosopagnosiac. Specifically, one who sees Club Med when he looks at Mir. The condition, according to an abstract from Science magazine, "is caused by bilateral cerebral lesions involving the visual system."

Aha! This is MirCorp's audience. If it can just narrow its mailing list to rich people with bilateral cerebral lesions in the visual system, they'll be able to forget about all that nasty swampland in Florida and concentrate on selling Mir trips.

I think I may have just sold myself as a consultant for MirCorp. All I need to do is track down all the prosopagnosia support groups I can find.

Get me my leash!

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Joel Greenberg can be reached at joel.greenberg@latimes.com.

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