Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Everybody loves prosopagnosia stories

I've mentioned before that I have face blindness. It's a real thing - I am awfully lazy about a lot of things, but it's not that I'm just too lazy to pay attention to faces. The part of my brain that is supposed to store people's faces just doesn't work very well, so I have a lot of coping strategies. People seem pretty fascinated by this, so I thought I'd tell you a little more about it.

G and I went to a 4th of July party yesterday. It was small, thank god; I just give up completely if I go to a large gathering. I've met the hosts before, so I was pretty sure I was good with them. Another couple showed up and I quickly noted the differences - black dress instead of blue and white dress, bearded instead of clean shaven. A's dad was in town, so he was easy as the oldest guy there. A single guy showed up - shit, he's got a beard too - but his hair was redder than anyone else's so I could pick him out too. Then another couple showed up and the man was also an older white guy. Shit! But he had a soul patch, and A's dad did not, so all I had to do was pay attention to the facial hair there.

I think normal people don't even think twice when they meet people. If you meet someone and talk to him for a while, you just remember his face, right? And you can imagine what he looks like the next day? I can't do that, at all. I have to memorize faces the way I memorize anything else - the shape and markings of a horse's face, or where I parked the truck in that parking garage, or what the new box of tea looks like. It takes a surprising amount of effort for me.

It's easiest if I remember externalities, like clothing, hair, and accessories. That doesn't help day to day, and it's why I'm so utterly awful at recognizing people out of context. No, I won't know you if I run into you at the grocery store - but I'll definitely pretend to!

Before I realized that I am fundamentally different from normal people, I honestly did not understand why they put missing kids on milk cartons and wanted criminals on the 5 o'clock news. How the hell do yall see a grainy mug shot on America's Most Wanted and then recognize that person in line at the grocery store? I will never understand it.

Anyway, it was a fun party, made more so because I could tell people apart. Larger parties are fun too, but in a much different way, because I'm often not quite sure if I've talked to a given person before that evening. My life is always an adventure. :)


  1. Interesting. I used to do the same thing before I got glasses ("Ok. Bob is wearing a red shirt and khaki shorts today ...")

  2. Wow that is an interesting and also- intense thing to have to go through. Just another reason I know you are such a cool friend to have. You can't take yourself too seriously, cause no matter how hard you try...the facts are the facts...so go with the flow!
    Again I say wow, you are so much more intune than actually most of us....like a blind person is, having much keener senses!

    Glad the party wad small and you sorted it all out- And- had fun

  3. I feel your pain. I've never been formally diagnosed, but I stink at recognizing people. I memorize what color they're wearing when I meet them. Unfortunately people tend to change their clothes (how inconsiderate of them!), so I don't remember who they are the next time I see them.

    When my daughter was in daycare, I used to feel so dumb when I went to get her and couldn't pick her out of the sea of identical looking babies unless I knew what she was wearing that day. I also once lost my husband in a Home Depot because I forgot what color shirt he was wearing that day. I only found him again because he walked up and started talking to me!

    It does make life an adventure, though! ;)

  4. Very interesting... thanks for sharing.

  5. I remember you mentioning that before. What about celebrities? If you stare at them again and again (as opposed to just meeting someone) are you eventually able to recognize them immediately or do you have to work at that too?

    Could you pick the various Doctors out in a line-up without their costumes?

    I've had similar experiences where someone I've known for years changes their hair-color/cut and I don't recognize them without staring at them for several minutes.

  6. I am sitting here thinking about how challenging this would make certain things that most of us take for granted. I have a really dumb question that I hope you don't mind - how does this effect you when you are watching tv or watching a movie?

  7. OMG! I thought I was the only one! I hate movies where more than one character has the same color hair. It really bothers me that I never know peoples eye colors. I also don't recognize people out of context very well.
    Question- when you close your eyes and try to imagine someone's face, can you do it? I can't. Makes me sad! I can conjure up the image of an actual photo of that person, but I can't 'make' an image of them in my mind.

  8. I've come to look at it like being dyslexic (or so I imagine). It's not that (moderately) dyslexic people can't read, it's just harder for them. I can memorize faces; I just have to put WAY more effort into it than normal people do.

    Shannon - LOL! Great, one day I too can look forward to losing my kid! ahahahah!

    Sara, you remember the Nixon episodes of Dr Who last season? I "recognized" that the President in that episode was supposed to be Nixon not because I know what he looks like, but because of the context clues - the tapes, obviously, and the age of the stuff in the office. I am iffy on famous people, and I can only ID the ones I really keep up with. I know all three new Doctors, but I don't think I'd even know Tom Baker without the scarf.

    G is totally sweet about it and always answers me honestly (and shares my glee when I'm right!) when I guess about actors. "Hey that's that guy from That Movie!"

    Melissa, honestly, some movies I just can't follow well. If a couple of characters superficially resemble each other, I will get them confused.

    Heather, I can picture some faces, but they're usually... fuzzy? I absolutely know what G and my parents look like. But even my really good long term friends, it's usually a mental image of their hairstyle and possibly a prominent feature, like a long nose or a short chin.

    If you'd like to Internet Diagnose yourself with prosopagnosia, this is the test I used. I utterly bombed it. I tried SO hard and just couldn't do it.

  9. Grrrr... I hate having to post a comment twice! I'm going to take the quiz although I'm prett sure I'm fine. The faces I'm ok with, the names are something else entirely. I have to literally repeat a name over and over during the conversation in order to have a chance at remebering it. Funder, I bet you are REALLY good at reading body language cues to see if people are reacting in a way that makes you think you should recognize them.

  10. Wow. How does that work with animals? My non-horsey friend says she likes Paj (pinto) because she can tell him from other horses. Otherwise they all look alike.

  11. Mel - YES, I am! It surprises even me how rarely it leads me astray - every now and then I'll get the "I know you" body language from someone at a grocery store and I'll act like I know them and then they get really confused. :o

    Terry - I think it's different. I think - I haven't done a ton of research to back this up, but I think humans have a highly developed area of the brain for recognizing faces, because it's so important to us as social animals (and we don't have a strong sense of smell or some other cue to depend on). Yes, if you're a horse person you are able to recognize your horse, or a horse you know, in a field of other similar horses - but it's not innate, it's learned. I compensate with body language and ephemera but I don't have the innate face thing.

  12. Wow - really interesting. I had never heard of this, but when I read your post, I thought "that's me!". Took the test and got less than half of the ones I knew right (although there were a lot that I said I didn't know, as I'm just not that into movie/tv stars, so even though some of the names were familiar, I wouldn't recognize them if they came aknockin' on my door!).
    I knew I had a problem telling young women students apart - I used to joke with my students that they were going to have to wear the same clothes and sit in the same seat all semester if they wanted me to learn their names. And I've often had problems recognizing my own daughter on the street or in a group. And I cannot follow shows that have people of similar build and hair colour. Now I know what may be at the root of it all. Thanks for the heads up.

  13. Fascinating...

    For me it is names and numbers. Not recognition, but rather recall, and it can be very frustrating. I can want to discuss a movie I've seen, but will struggle with the name of it, the name of who played in it. People are no different. I could relay your life story but not be able to give you the name of the person I'm talking about. It is very VERY frustrating, and it has always been this way. Number recall makes me want to bang my head on the desktop. Other people do not understand it. While working in the office I keep a pen and pad of paper in front of me so I can write down a name as soon as it is given to me....because if 30 seconds lapse, I'll not remember that name unless I have daily contact with you. Song lyrics? Same deal. I wonder, did my Mom drop me on my head? *LOL*

    At least I'm not "alone" in the world with having some sort of anomoly.


  14. Weirdness, I'm the exact opposite- I almost never forget a face but names fly out as soon as I learn them. I have to write names down or read them in order to remember them.

  15. Wow. That's odd and fascinating. I would be SO screwed at this job if I couldn't remember faces. Wow.

  16. Terry: "Wow. How does that work with animals? My non-horsey friend says she likes Paj (pinto) because she can tell him from other horses. Otherwise they all look alike."

    Funder: "I think it's different. I think - I haven't done a ton of research to back this up, but I think humans have a highly developed area of the brain for recognizing faces."

    As long as we're arm-chair philosophizing, it could be less innate and more that we spend lots of time looking at faces from a very young age. I floated through the facial recognition test with an average score, but until I get to know them I have a hard time distinguishing people who are of a different race than I am. (The clusters of Asian girls you see in the mall? I can see that their faces are different when they're together, but I couldn't pick them out of a lineup later!)

    As far as I know, this is pretty normal. I suspect there's some element of learning involved, and I suspect someone who grew up in a less homogeneous section of society would have less trouble with this than I do.

    But this is all off-the-cuff speculation!

  17. Guess I must be lucky then, in that I do remember most people. If it's been a long time & I see the out of their normal "context" i.e. a riding friend at a concert etc., it might take me a while to make the connection! Longer now that I'm older :-)

  18. I recognized most of the faces, but couldn't remember their names. That's pretty unusual for me, but I did take the test before coffee.

    We'd make quite a pair together, wouldn't we? The "blind" and the "deaf"- lol!

  19. I'm with you here, fellow sufferer. Tonight I walked past some colleagues in a bar, then came back because, after all, these strangers were trying to talk to me. It is an embarrassing problem. At least they bought me a drink.


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