I Have A Disease: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Face Blindness

by Nate St. Pierre on June 11, 2012

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.

(Image source: Nicola since 1972 | mikebaird)

  • Do I go into the “Rock Star” folder? 😉

  • This is a fascinating read. 

    • I thought it would be interesting to most people, because they’ve probably never thought of it until now.

      • Is this true, or another one of your pranks?
        The pranks sort of take the edge off of your credibility when it comes to things like this.

        • How would this be funny/interesting as a prank? (Yes, it’s true.)

  • that has a bit of a sonic the hedgehog look to it. 😉

  • SarahInMI

    I think now we’re all wondering which file we’re in. 🙂

    (And I knew this about you – to a degree, that you struggled with faces but I didn’t recognize the extent of it. Thank you for sharing this. And also there are days when I’d take curing allergies over making my hearing perfect… so I get ya there.)

  • I’m really hoping my height (or lack of height) is useful in this situation. 😀

    • YES! I don’t think I’ll ever confuse you with anyone else, my friend. 🙂

      • YES! I feel cool now. 

  • My question is, how can we help you with this if we see you? For instance, should we tell you who we are, or is that insulting? Personally, I’d rather take the mystery out of it and say, “Hey, I’m Andrea from So Over Debt. Nice to see you again!” But not if that would be a jerk thing to do.

    • Actually yes, that would actually help for the first couple of times, until I was familiar enough to recognize you on my own. When I see people few and far between, that’s when it’s hardest. Did we meet at FinCon? I don’t remember…

      • We did! We were at the same table for the Plutus Awards, and we talked a few times here and there. 🙂

        • Sigh. Sorry.

          • Hey, no worries! There was so much going on, I don’t know how you could possibly remember everyone. And since you and J are much more “internet famous” it naturally follows that more people would remember you than vice versa.

  • I know how you feel… I have it as well.  I heard about it 18 months ago and suddenly a lot of things made a lot more sense to me.  I think my case is a little more mild than yours (I think I’d recognize my siblings with new hair-dos).

    I like your folder analogy.  That’s perfect.  I explain to people that Matt Damon and Leo Dicaprio are essentially the same actor to me, even though I’m from Boston and should recognize Matt Damon anywhere from his Boston-based movies.  Blonde Scarlett Johannson is like the hottest person on the face of the earth to me.  I’d walk by brunette Scarlett Johannson on the street without noticing her.

    I wrote about it 18 months ago: http://www.lazymanandmoney.com/i-have-prosopagnosia/.

    • Yes! The movie thing is horrible, because you don’t have those contextual clues. You’re right – that’s where real life is a lot easier. And Morena? That’s the girl from Firefly? Love that show, and have seen both series and movie quite a few times, but I never would have recognized her. I can hear her voice in my head right now, though, so I probably would have placed her from that.

      Glad to see you wrote about it too, and thanks for the linkback.

      •  Yeah Morena is Inara in Firefly, but look at her in IMDB and she’s an entirely different person with short hair.  I think the voice helped me when I saw her in Numbers say, “I know this person from somewhere”, but I’m not that good voices.  Guess I haven’t compensated for that trick because my case is more mild.

        I mentioned you wrote this to my wife and she remembers a few incidents where I walked right past here because she was in a place that I didn’t expect her to be in.  She thought I needed glasses (which coincidentally I did, but they didn’t help).  She thought I was just being a jackass until she saw that it was a real thing on 20/20 and one of her favorite authors, Emily Giffin has be vocal about having it.

        • Yep, I’ve walked right by close family members, too – they think I’m messing with them. Not anymore, though. Same here with the glasses, which I do need, but they don’t help with this. 😉

  • Wow – Thanks so much for sharing this. To me, it adds a whole other layer of awesome to the work that you’ve been doing – If it’s stressful to be in situations with crowds, etc, especially where everyone knows who you are but not necessarily vice versa, kudos to you for putting that to the side to throw yourself out there each month with Love Drop, the conferences, etc. You’ve got incredible leadership capabilities.

  • Peliroo

    Fascinating.  Your brain seems to have developed very generalized schema for facial recognition.  It makes sense to me after seeing how you do other things.  It’s good that you said something.  I think we as your friends want to make you more comfortable, so doing what Andrea suggested is a great idea.  

    Glad I have red hair, btw.  hahaha. 

    • Yep, you’re an easy one for me – smaller, red curly hair. 🙂

  • I was unaware of this condition until I read You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers. It’s a memoir that deals with a lot more than just her faceblindness, but a fascinating and informative read nonetheless. Are you familiar with it?

    Thank for sharing your experiences  🙂

  • Danim Stone

    This is fascinating. Truly. My Lord, no wonder you looked like you were going to have a panic attack when you showed up to our gathering and 80% of us were wearing the same pink shirt. Bless ya. 
    Now if we meet in person again I’ll know what to do. Speak to you slowly and in a loud voice, announce who I am, just as I would with an elderly person. No? Was that not the takeaway? My bad. 
    Seriously, thanks for sharing this. I agree with ChiMomWriter, knowing this about you makes what you do even more inspiring. *hugs*

    • And walk slowly. No sudden moves, please. And do not approach the cage.

  • I don’t have anything close to that, but I’ve always known that I can’t pull up a person’s face in my memory.  It has made me kind of sad knowing that if my loved ones were gone, I’d have no visual memories of them.  Thank goodness for cameras.

    I’m betting someone could do a whole reality show on a person with this disease.  It would be fascinating.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Angela

    Thanks for sharing this Nate, I found it very interesting. I also have a mild form of this, I often can’t recognise celebs very well (partly because they are not that important to me haha), and I have trouble following movie plots because I get the characters confused if they have similar hair or something. I worry about meeting friends in public in case I can’t recognise them in a crowd. I also have met lots of people through work and often they come up to me when I’m out and I sometimes have to ask who they are when I’m not sure what our common link is, it’s very embarassing. It has often made me feel stupid so it’s good to know I’m not alone 🙂

    • Angela

      ps. you haven’t actually met me I am just a random fan from ISWU!

      • I too am terrible at recognising celebs/keeping characters straight in movies.

        And despite being Chinese, I dread watching Asian films because that problem is multiplied 10-fold.

    • Yeah, the movie thing is hard for me too when characters look similar. And when they’re in disguise, haha… 🙂

  • Hey Nate! Well, it’s a handicap that definitely has no effect whatsoever on your effect or skill. I do remember though in college when I don’t remember someone’s name, I sort of make a story about my ID and how it’s so torn and ugly and ask for theirs!! Lol.  

  • Oh, and here’s an awful website I just found, full of celebrity closeups:

    http://celebritycloseup.tumblr.com/ 

    See how many you can get right.

  • So interesting Nate! Thanks for sharing. I’d seen the 60 Minutes piece before but it’s even more fascinating to hear more about this from someone who I know to be so people-connected!

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  • Wow. I have a little trouble remembering phases, but nothing as bad as you. I also can’t remember names at all. Basically, unless you make a big impression on me, I’m probably not going to remember having met you.
    If I do get to FinCon this year, I’ll make sure I’ll re-introduce myself. Maybe to give you an extra boost, I’ll wear the same purple shirt (although I think I promised J I’d wear the orange shirt in my avatar)

    • Yes to the re-introduction, and double yes to the same orange shirt from the avatar, haha…

  • LB

    I saw that 60 minutes story and can see how certain people have minor issues with that, but to have full on face blindness would be hard. 

    I have trouble when I am surrounded by people of the same culture that dress and look alike.  When I went to NY I had to keep my husband close, because he looked like so many other people around.  It was hard to find him, unless he was only a few feet away.  I had to remember what shirt he was wearing, otherwise I would lose him.  I also have trouble remembering names and faces.  Names easy, putting names to faces, the hardest thing for me to do, unless there are cubicles or someone that really stands out.

  • I don’t know if I have full blown face blindness, but I definitely suffer from this to a degree. It’s caused me strife many a time when I introduce myself to someone and they’re all -_-, “we met just the other day”…

    I’m always hesitant to introduce myself at events to people I THINK I recognise from Twitter for this exact reason.

    In starting my last two jobs, there were two women of similar build/size/age/colouring in the same department whom it took me days, if not weeks, to be able to confidently distinguish.

    Anyway, I’ve never come across anyone with this problem, so it’s good to hear your story!

  • This is my first time reading your blog and I kind of want to hug you!  (Don’t worry…if I did, I would definitely introduce myself first!!!)  Why?  While although I don’t believe that I have this to any degree, I, like most people, have come in contact with someone who very obviously knew me…and I still have no clue who those people were!  If I think about those times, it will drive me crazy.  Those people that knew me….who were they?  Should I have known them?  Do they think I’m a jerk for not hugging them or asking about their mother?  Do they think I just don’t like them?  It’s driving me a little mad and I can’t imagine going through that every day, several times a day.  

    I really enjoyed this post and I’ll come back soon and see what else you’re up to!  
    -Michelle

    • Thanks, Michelle! And yes, if we do run into each other, please introduce yourself, and a hug is great. 🙂

  • Bret

    Thanks for writing about this Nate.

    I also have Prosopagnosia and wrote a similar post last year.  Before I figured out what it was two years ago, I thought I was losing my mind.  Just knowing about the condition has made it a lot easier for me to endure.  We definitely need to spread the word so others will know what they have.

    Bret

  • Melissa B.

    Wow, this is really interesting. I never would have guessed from meeting you, though I think I knew of you before meeting you, though I never interacted with you (I have interacted with J$ much, much more). We met at Love Drop – the very last one – but there’s no way I expect you to remember that cause you had tons on your plate then with your back and everything. Anyways, I think I’m going to share this on my blog – it’s important.

    • If you share it on your blog, please email me the link, so I can check it out! And yes, I had a ton on my plate that last drop, and I was in a pain-and-vicodin-induced haze as well, ha…

  • Andrea

    I recently found out about this and it explains so much. I’ve always felt like I must be a terribly uncaring person to not be able to recognize people, or that I have a terrible memory (even though I do fine with many other kinds of information), so it was a bit of a relief to find out this is a thing.

    Are you self-diagnosed or did you get professionally tested?

  • Dan

    Yes I Was a used car sales person. The other sales people were surprised when I could not recognize my customers. I have started another business. I have had customers come up to me and say hi. I had no Idea who they were until my partner told me who they were
    .

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  • Andres Abad

    Hi, I´ve just realized i think i have the same desease without even knowing it. Im not that critical as you or the ones on the video though.
    I work near midtown on my city, i always have to walk pretty long distances and almost everytime someone say Hi to me.. i saw them and say hi ! but it take me about 10 – 15 seconds struggling in my head with the same questions “who are you? do i know you? How and where have i meet you? Then i just invent an excuse to go away and continue walking without trying not to be rude. My grandma died a year ago… and its pretty hard to remember her in my mind without seeing a photo of her. My memories are just fuzzy faces with different sizes and lots of hair, no details.. i just try to recreate some face details i think it belongs to them in my mind but thats all.
    It amazes me when people can recognize a thieft on a mugshot .. or someone giving a spoken portrait to the police. Gosh… i thought it was my bad memory or my Adhd

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