As if there wasn’t enough weirdness in my brain, I live with mild prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. I recently came across this great podcast on the subject, that updated latest developments, as well as providing a few facts I hadn’t known.
I first heard of prosopagnosia about a dozen years ago, in a documentary about a woman who couldn’t recognize members of her own family, with whom she lived. I watched it for the same reasons anyone would – curiosity, and wondering what her very different life might be like.
However, as the documentary described how people with less severe cases of the condition may not even be aware of it, and instead think they have trouble with names, or just need to pay more attention, it began to sound unexpectedly familiar.
Signs and Portents
When I was in elementary school, I was greeted by classmates as I was walking with my mother. She asked their names. I didn’t know. She thought that was quite abnormal, and that I must not be paying attention, as she could name everyone in her class when she was a child.
In my teens, on the way home from a trip, I was ushered by a relative into a room where my mother was waiting to surprise me — and I didn’t recognize her. I just chalked it up to the unexpected context, and the fact that I hadn’t seen her in awhile, but that did seem a little odd.
Then there was the 20 minute conversation I had on the bus with a high school classmate (I thought), only to realize later that she had actually been the roommate of a co-worker. Luckily, both relationships were so casual that we hadn’t discussed anything personal enough to give me away, but still, it shook me a little.
By my 20s, I was joking about my inability to remember people’s names, unless they were “wearing the same color shirt” as the first time I met them. Which almost nobody was, of course.
Later in my 20s, I tried to visualize the person I was dating, who was out of town for a few days, and realized I couldn’t.
In my early 30s, I worked in a call center where the co-workers scheduled on any given day varied, as did their seating. There were two sets of people with similar build, age, gender and hair color who I constantly confused. Side by side, I could easily tell the people in each set apart, but when I was only looking at one, I couldn’t tell which one it was.
Seeing a Pattern
Somehow, though, I never put all of this together until I saw that documentary. I thought I was just bad with names. It didn’t occur to me (though it ought to have, when I was looking at everything but faces to try and identify people) that I might be bad with faces, which resulted in not having anything to attach names to. Was that even possible? Human brains are specialized for that, right?
Not all human brains, it turns out. One of the things I learned from the podcast is that mild prosopagnosia is actually pretty common, occurring in 2 people out of 100. The other 98 people cover a wide spectrum, with “super identifiers” who help police match photos with previous offenders at the other end.
I know those people. I can’t necessarily identify someone I met the day before yesterday, but they somehow recognize me from a 5-minute meeting 3 years ago. Unfathomable.
Putting It To the Test
At the end of the documentary, there was contact information on a prosopagnosia study being conducted at Harvard. I volunteered. The first test consisted of identifying well known people from photographs. My score was well within the range of normal. Hmm, maybe I don’t have it after all, I thought.
But then I was contacted for a followup study awhile later, and that was an entirely different thing.
The images of faces in the test looked like photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, a hundred times removed from the original. Maybe there were some slight differences around the eyes, but I didn’t see how anyone could really tell one from another.
A set of faces was briefly displayed, followed by several more sets, from which I was to identify those I had previously seen. Equally impossible, especially by the second and third round, when even if a face looked familiar, I couldn’t tell whether it was from the current round.
I was shocked by my score, not that it was low, but that it was substantially below average. Somehow, other people were able to tell those formless blurs apart. Even now, knowing more, I find that hard to believe.
I never saw the results of that study, but the question of whether face blindness is an issue of memory or of processing came up in the podcast, and the answer is still under research.
Understanding that prosopagnosia was a physical difference freed me from some of the negative feedback I’d received, and I was able to take a more practical approach. I concluded that I was just going to have to work harder at meeting “normal” social expectations around recognition than most people.
The last time I worked in a corporate cubicle environment, I enlisted the aid of nearby co-workers to “help me remember names.” I developed proactive greetings for people who obviously recognized me, as if I recognized them too, but just couldn’t place them (which was sometimes true, but not always).
I preventively tell people I’m “bad at names” when I meet them. As it turns out, quite a few other people say they are, too. Given what I now know about the commonness of prosopagnosia, I wonder how many of them are on the low end of the facial recognition spectrum like me.
Nowadays I work with clients remotely, and never meet most of them. I appreciate that as an introvert – I hate being watched while I work.
But it wasn’t until the podcast reminded me that I realized working remotely is also great for someone with prosopagnosia. I’m good with voices, and I always know who an email is from.
As for neighbors, I’ve expanded my open floor plan strategy to the whole block, and enlisted help to make a cheatsheet map with names of the occupants of each house.
Beginning and End
One thing the podcast didn’t explore is causes of prosopagnosia. There was a passing reference to congenital conditions, but it wasn’t clear whether that meant hereditary or not.
From the documentary, I remember that it could be caused by brain trauma, and I always assumed that was the case with me. I was a good-sized first baby who took a long time being born, and high forceps (now banned) were used. I sometimes wonder whether that had anything to do with my other brain variations.
The podcast wraps up with an interesting reframing of prosopagnosia from a man who has it – he says we aren’t looking at superficial things, like “beauty,” but are rather most interested in who a person is.
For a video and transcript of the podcast, visit this page.