I have a disease that you’ve probably never heard of. It’s called prosopagnosia, or “face blindness.” This disorder of the brain means that I have a very, very difficult time trying to recognize or remember your face.
I’ll bet that sounds strange to you, because you’ve probably never had trouble recognizing people’s faces. In fact, you’ve probably never even considered that there are people out there who can’t do it. For most people, it’s automatic – you just look at a face and recognize it. But for people like me, it doesn’t work that way. Looking at a face can be as stressful as trying to figure out a math problem in my head.
For instance, can you tell me who this is? It may be someone that you know. And if you don’t instantly know who it is, can you at least describe his facial features? Look closely and you can see them.
(click on the image to blow it up)
How was the experience for you? Did you recognize this man? This is how I feel whenever I look at someone’s face. It’s a problem I have to figure out, rather than familiar recognition. Now imagine that you’re at work, at a friend’s house, or at a conference. He’s walking confidently towards you, smiling. He’s probably someone you know, and you have about three seconds to recognize him before things get awkward. It can get pretty stressful.
I’ve known this about myself my whole life, but I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal until I was around 10 years old. I was reading a kids’ magazine, and they had a “factoids” section. One of the factoids was that humans can recognize and recall about 10,000 faces throughout their lifetime. That boggled my mind, because I knew I could probably only recognize/recall around 100, and that only with difficulty.
My little brother always used to make fun of me for not being able to recognize people. I remember when we were teenagers, he gave me an image that has always stuck with me. He said it was like I had little office workers in my brain, and I kept giving them pictures of new people to file away. Trouble was, they had run out of those manilla file folders. So any new picture just went into the closest one I had. Brunette woman with glasses? She went into the Tina Fey folder. Black man with a shaved head? Michael Jordan folder. The faces that I can more easily recognize, as you would expect, are the ones that I see over and over again: family, friends, some celebrities. But even that’s not a guarantee.
I popped into my mom’s house recently, and I was sitting at the dining room table, about 12 feet from the kitchen table. I saw someone in there making a sandwich. I asked my mom, “Who’s the tall girl in the kitchen?” (Because she was younger and fairly tall.) She looked over in surprise, expecting to see someone random, and then turned back to me and said “That’s your sister, Nate.” And sure enough, it was. But she had changed her hairstyle, and was wearing clothes I hadn’t seen before. I could see her face when I first looked over, but it didn’t matter. My brain doesn’t recognize faces, so it always goes to the secondary visual cues. And when those visual cues were not familiar to me, the girl in the kitchen was not recognizable as my sister – it was like I was looking at a stranger. That’s why I mentioned that she was tall. My siblings and I are all tall-ish, so it’s nothing that I ever notice on a regular basis. But I realized that if I were to describe my sister to a stranger, I would say that she’s tall, because that’s a differentiating factor for her.
Even as I write this, I realize how crazy it can sound to not be able to recognize your own sibling, spouse, or child. But I’ve had it happen to me for all three. 60 Minutes recently did a piece on face blindness, and a researcher walked Lesley Stahl through what it can be like for people with the disease. You’ll see the demonstration at the 2:29 mark of this video:
For those who can’t see the video, here are the six faces he gave her a few seconds to recognize:
This demonstration is the best way I’ve seen to help people understand what it’s like to not (easily) recognize faces. If you look at the six faces upside down and without any other visual cues, it can be really tough to know who they are. And for Lesley, it was astonishing to find out that she didn’t even recognize her own daughter (the one on the bottom right).
Another example comes at the 3:46 mark of the following video:
When a normal person is looking at a face upside down, it’s really hard to see even drastic differences between two faces. In the example above, the researcher showed Lesley two pictures of the same face, upside down and side by side. The one on the left was normal, the one on the right had been edited.
You can tell that they’re different, but not exactly how, probably.
Until you see the faces right side up, and then you can tell just how grotesque the one on the right really is:
Here’s how this works in real life. Let’s say that the image above was of two different people, Bill and Jack. Bill looks normal, and Jack looks like a scary clownface, yeah? Someone flashes you a picture of just one of them for less than a second and asks you to tell them which one it is. Easy, right? Well, for people like me, it’s like doing the same thing, but only flashing one of the upside-down pictures for less than a second, and then asking which one it is. It’s much more difficult, especially without any other visual cues to help out.
When your brain doesn’t recognize faces, it automatically starts to compensate by focusing heavily on other references, just like a blind person’s sense of hearing becomes much more keen. In fact, I’m quite similar – I’m very good at recognizing voices, because over the years I’ve had to rely on that to help me identify people. Sometimes I don’t recognize them as they walk up, but once they start talking to me, I can place their voice and know who they are.
I primarily recognize people by their size, shape, hair, clothes, the way they walk, and environmental clues. That’s why it throws me off so much when people change their hairstyle, especially if I see them out in public, away from their usual surroundings. Even worse is when I’m supposed to recognize someone from their profile picture online. At a social media conference, for instance. Those places are incredibly stressful for me, because there are dozens and dozens of people that I should know just from sight (which is not unreasonable for a normal person). If I don’t, their feelings are hurt. And I get it – it’s pretty lame when your own friend doesn’t recognize you. But after seeing the examples above, you can imagine how I feel in the middle of hundreds or thousands of people, a sea of faces, and at any moment, with just a second’s notice, I need to be able to recognize and identify people that I’m expected to know. It makes me never want to go to those things.
I’m a big introvert to begin with, and don’t really enjoy being out in public, surrounded by loads of people. But the face blindess makes things even worse. Whenever I see someone walking up to me, it triggers all the usual questions: Do I know this person? Should I know this person? She looks like Laura (remember my brain lumps people together). Is it Laura? Is Laura supposed to be here? If not, how many people are in the “petite brunette, short hair” file folder in my brain? Is she someone from online, or maybe someone totally new? For the majority of people most of the time, it’s either you know them or you don’t. For people with face blindness, it’s an exhausting series of questions and second-guessing yourself.
That’s pretty much the worst of it . . . for me, anyway. There are others who have it far worse, like they can’t even recognize themselves in the mirror. You can watch the videos to see more detail on the extreme cases. For my level of severity, I wouldn’t consider it a handicap, just a situation that’s decidedly inconvenient. It leads to more stress, awkward situations, and definitely increases my already strong tendency to stay away from large groups of people.
I do what I can to cope: I have a folder on my computer called “People,” with everyday pictures of many of my friends and family, saved by their initials. When I can’t picture someone’s face (which is almost all the time), I can look in there or on Facebook or whatever to remind myself what they look like, especially if I’m going to be seeing them sometime soon, and need a refresher. Because if I try to recall someone’s face in my mind without the help of a photograph, it’s a complete mess. Facial features get shifted around and morphed, other features from the next closest face I’m familiar with get slapped on, and when my brain realizes that this image looks nothing like the person I’m trying to remember, it just gives up and leaves me with a fairly good image of their body, with a blank face on top.
It sounds kind of stupid and funny when I write it out like that, and in a way it is. As diseases go, it’s probably one of the better ones you could have. I’m not afraid of dying from it, unless you show me a series of mug shots, put a gun to my head, and tell me to name the one I went to high school with. And if you gave me a choice of being miraculously cured of either this, my allergies, or my nearsightedness, I’d choose the other two first. So yes, it sucks, but no, it’s not the end of the world.
According to the research, there may be a significant (2.5%) portion of the population that could have this disease, in varying degrees of severity. I hope this article sheds a little more light on what it is and what it feels like to live with the disorder. If someone you know is really bad at recognizing people, pass this on to them and see if anything in here resonates. I don’t think there’s anything that can be done about it, but at least they’ll know they’re not alone.
If you have any questions, ask them in the comments section, and I’ll be happy to answer.
Get a weekly update on new articles, and links to my best work ↓