Don't Recognize People? You Might Have Prosopagnosia
I have always had a problem remembering people's faces after meeting them the first time. All my life I thought this was normal, but I always wondered how others did so well with recognizing other people they hardly knew.
If you have a similar problem, you may have Prosopagnosia, a neurological cognitive disorder that causes face blindness–the inability to recognize faces.
After researching the condition, I learned that I have a minor case of face blindness. This article, and my story, may help you understand it better, and even learn how to deal with it.
There Are Different Degrees of Face Blindness
While discussing Prosopagnosia with one of my friends, he told me, “When my wife introduces me to a lot of people who she knows, I don't always remember their faces or who they are if I run into them a month or so later.”
He probably has a minor case of it.
Most people will be able to meet a bunch of people and know they had met them once before when they see them again. They just may not remember their names. They may not remember where they met, but they will know that they saw that face before. I envy that.
In my case, I need to meet someone two or three times. By then, things about their face get registered in my mind and I don’t have any more problems. However, prior to that things can be a little embarrassing.
Some people with severe cases of Prosopagnosia never recognize others, even close friends. There are reports of people who don’t recognize their own husband or wife. That's an extreme case of it.
Many people with prosopagnosia have trouble following the movie plots because they can’t keep track of certain characters who may look alike.
My Experience with Face Blindness
When I talk with someone I had met for the first time at a party, for instance, I'm great at conversation. I easily notice their interest or disinterest in the subject.
When I’m explaining something to someone, I always maintain eye contact. This gives me a vision into their concentration. If they look away, I know they may be thinking of something else or not be interested. They may even be thinking ahead to something they want to add to the conversation. That's good, but if I see they avoid eye contact while answering a personal question, I suspect they wish to hide something.
I’m totally aware of all this, and yet, I’m missing the most important details about the features of their face.
It's clear that I've been paying close attention to their face. I even remember the colors of their eyes most of the time. However, none of this helps me recognize the person the next time I see them.
Does Anyone Have Totally Normal Recognition?
I remember when I was a child, I had teachers in school that would somehow know every student right from the start. If they ran into any one of us in the hallway, they knew us by name, even after the first day of school! So I know it’s possible to have zero problems with face recognition.
Even cops need to be able to recognize people even if they just got a glimpse of them.
Oh, I would be terrible in a line up! I would probably let the thief off the hook and not even know it.
How Prosopagnosia Can Be Embarrassing
A friend shared a personal story with me:
“When we moved into our new home, we invited our neighbors, a young couple, over for dinner. A week later I ran into the wife in a grocery store. She said hello to me, but I guess she noticed my expression and said, ‘You don’t know who I am. Do you?’ I admitted that I couldn’t remember, thinking she must have been someone I knew ages ago. But then she exclaimed, ‘My husband and I ate over your house with you last week!’ Wow! That was embarrassing.”
She later told me that her husband is more accepting of her now, since he finally understands what’s causing these situations. She said that kind of thing happens to her every once in a while.
How Can People Compensate for Prosopagnosia?
Another friend asked me: "Are you able to compensate for that to minimize the effects of face blindness?"
I developed a trick I’ve used throughout my life, even before I knew I had Prosopagnosia–or knew what it was.
My trick was simply to act friendly with everyone, if I knew him or her–or not. There are two results from these cases:
- The people who I already had met would never be the wiser. The only issue was that I don’t reference them by name. Nevertheless, the friendliness I put forth overpowered that.
- The people who I don’t know and never met will simply think of me as a very sociable and approachable person. That works. At least it never caused a problem.
How My Dad Compensated for It
I remember something my father did. He was a medical doctor. He always said hello to every stranger he passed in public. As a child, I found this a little embarrassing; I didn’t know any better at the time.
When I discovered Prosopagnosia in my studies later in life, it gave me a full understanding and appreciation for what my father was going through. It was his way of dealing with it.
It was a worthwhile way to avoid the embarrassment of not showing recognition of a patient of his. So just saying hello to everyone solved the problem. That works. I wish he were alive today so I could share my appreciation of the condition with him. I wonder if he knew what it was in those days.
“Selective inabilities to recognize faces were documented as early as the 19th century, and included case studies by Hughlings Jackson and Charcot. However, it was not named until the term prosopagnosia was first used in 1947 by Joachim Bodamer, a German neurologist.”— Wikipedia
Noticing Non-facial Features Can Help Override Prosopagnosia
I sometimes compensate by noticing other features not related to the face.
Outstanding features help to deal with it. If someone has a feature that stands out dramatically, I'll put that in a special memory cell, so to say, that helps me recall who that person is when I see them again. However, it needs to be a unique attribute.
For example, I once met a very tall, thin, woman at a wedding party. I could look straight at her eyes without looking down while chatting. That’s something I can’t forget and that’s all I need in order to know who she is when I see her again.
Prosopagnosia Can be Inherited or Caused by Injury
Prosopagnosia can be caused by brain injury, damaging the brain’s cognitive ability to visualize faces and connect them with memories.
However, it can also be inherited, which is known as Congenital Prosopagnosia. In that case, one would have a variation of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR), which can be detected with a DNA test kit (you provide a saliva sample and mail it to the lab).
I found I have that gene variation, and my sister does too. I assume our father had it also, based on how he compensated for it—as I mentioned earlier.
How Many People Have Congenital Prosopagnosia?
Face blindness is reported to affect 2.5% of the U.S. population.1
I think it's much greater than that, because now that I'm telling people I have this condition, many admit to me that they have some form of it too.
They tell me they never understood what their problem was until I brought this up. They thought they were just not paying enough attention or that something was wrong with them, but they didn't ever question it with anyone.
What about you?
Do you think you have Prosopagnosia?
Interview With a Face Blind Neurologist
In the following video, Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviews Dr. Sacks on CNN. He is a neurologist who has Prosopagnosia. He describes how he deals with it.
He has it much worse than I do. When I listen to him describe his face blindness, I realize how lucky I am, because mine is of minimal consequence. Once I meet someone two or three times, I get to know them and I no longer have trouble picking them out in a crowd.
Many friends, who tell me they have been aware of a similar problem, also have just a minor case of it. They can live with it, as I do, with hardly any negative issues.
It’s only those people with severe cases that struggle with it. However, as you can see from this video, it doesn’t stop one from achieving much success in life. We simply have to find a work-around to compensate for it.
© 2017 Glenn Stok