Friday, July 01, 2011

Face Blindness (Prosopagnosia)

At my wedding celebration with Bob in 2008, I met some of his family for the first time. To prepare, I spent months studying a photo of them because I didn't want to fail to recognize them. It took that long for their faces to sink in to my memory because I suffer from face blindness, also called prosopagnosia.

I’m excited about the latest issue of Face to Face, specifically the article written by Heather Sellers. This publication is produced by the Prosopagnosia Research Center, which I'm so relieved to have discovered! Sellers' story of not recognizing friends and family is familiar to me and I wanted to cheer when I read it. Prosopagnosia is a real handicap that people rarely understand and I haven't been great at talking about it. But in middle age, my problem with faces is getting worse, so I need to start explaining it better. I'm so happy to have found this newsletter!

Many people think being bad with faces is like being bad with names, but the two aren't that similar. If you forget someone's name, you can still greet them warmly and have a conversation. But when I forget a face, the person looks like a stranger to me. I sometimes hurt the feelings of people who know me because they think I'm ignoring them out of anger or rudeness, but really I just don’t remember ever meeting them.

Yeah, it gets bad. I once went to the dinner party of someone named Paul who I met for the first time that night. I was at his place for hours and had a great evening with him and mutual friends. The next day, as I climbed the steps of my church (back when I went to a church), a stranger wished me good morning. I returned it. Then he asked if I’d recovered from that crazy conversation last night. I stared at him and said, “I’m sorry. Do I know you?” He stared back and said, “I’m Paul. You were at my house last night.” Talk about feeling like an idiot.

Prosopagnosia is basically a brain disorder that can happen after an injury, but people like me are just born that way. No one knows why yet and research is still new. I first noticed that I had a problem when I was 20 years old. In college, some guy started up a conversation with me as I walked through campus. Being young and friendly, I chatted with him. About five minutes into the conversation, he asked about a magazine deadline. With horror, I realized this was Gary, the photographer who I'd been on staff with for months. I was too mortified to let on, but even when I realized who he was, I still couldn't place his face.

I’ve also introduced myself to the same person twice at parties -- within minutes. Hey, the guy moved across the room - how was I supposed to recognize him in a new spot? I cling to context for ways to remember who someone is. If you take that new co-worker out of the office or that brand new acquaintance out of the chair they were just sitting in, I might not recognize them again.

This is not to say that I can’t tell who anyone is. I eventually learn faces, but it takes longer than most people. If it’s, say, a new staff person that I work with every single day, learning their face might take a week. If I see them infrequently, it might take months. I really had to study that picture of Bob's family before I could trust myself to be polite to them. I knew that if I saw their faces for the first time the day of our celebration, I wouldn't remember which ones they were for the whole party.

I often say this when I meet someone, "Hi, I'm Regina. Look, I'm really bad with faces, so if I see you again and don't say hi, don't take it personally."

Unfortunately, people don't usually understand. They say, "Oh, no problem. I'm bad with names, so we're even." But we're not even. People aren't nearly as thrown off by an acquaintance forgetting their name as they are by an acquaintance acting as if they've never met.So I might start saying this, "Hi, I'm Regina. It's really nice to meet you. I have prosopagnosia which means I don't remember faces, so please remind me of who you are until I get it. It takes me longer than most people to remember who I've met." What do you think? I'll gladly take feedback on this.

It's remarkably difficult to convince someone that I can't remember faces. This suggests that easily remembering faces must be such a basic, universal skill that people can't believe someone can't do it. I envy anyone who can meet someone for a few minutes and then recognize them the next day. What a superpower! When I meet a new person, I desperately take inventory of their clothing, hair, makeup, etc. I remember context and opinions (such as, "I love those red shoes" or "What happened to his hair?") much better than images. I hope their outfit and hairstyle won't change too much before I see them again, but they often do. It's a confusing world for me and I can't trust my memory of it.

Please be patient with friends (or co-workers or neighbors) who bizarrely act like we don't know you, especially outside of the place where we usually see you. Researchers are finding that prosopagnosia is very common and many people have it to some degree. Some people take a little longer to learn a new face, others don't recognize even themselves in a photo or in the mirror.

Imagine what it would be like if you had to re-learn everyone's face all the time, fumbling through embarrassing situation after embarrassing situation. It's a real handicap, socially and professionally. People like me often come across as aloof, shy, snobbish, in-our-own-world or just rude. When I reach a certain age, I'm sure I'll look senile and hopeless. One day there might be therapies or even a cure for prosopagnosia, but at the moment, researchers are still trying to identify the part of the brain it involves.

So the next time someone you know looks at you blankly or acts like she doesn't recall the last interaction you had, she might frantically be trying to place who you are. If it's me, help me out. I'm not being rude. I have a brain disorder and I might not recall having laid eyes on you before.


LosingIt said...

Hi Regina - I feel your pain! This is a condition that dramatically impacts lives. I also have face blindness and it has evolved into major social anxiety. The worse is when I pick up my kids at school. I can't recognize any of the other moms, even if I just volunteered with them hours earlier. I don't recognize teachers as well, which is embarrassing. I avoid social situations, which makes me look anti-social or snobby. It is sad that at my son's fifth grade graduation I could only recognize two moms and his teacher. Professionally, it also takes its toll. I hate attending conferences. I can sit next to someone at lunch, then not recognize them an hour later in another room.

I think it is smart of you to explain upfront to people that you have this condition. I'm sure it saves both of you from future awkward situations.

On a side note: Often I don't recognize a face, but then I hear the person's voice and I instantly know who the person is. I can recall many voices, but not faces! The instant voice recognition not work for the first few times after I meet someone, but after a while it is how I can make a connection.

What a great post! I'm glad you're making more people aware of this condition.

Regina said...

LosingIt - I'm impressed that you can identify people by their voices. I'm not even good at that. It takes a long time for me to learn a voice, too.

I think the best way to deal with it is to be up front about it. In the newsletter I linked, Sellers says she might have to try several times before a new acquaintance understands what she's saying. SO OFTEN people think face blindness is like being bad with names. It's not at all like that!

Sandii said...

wow - I've never even heard of the condition Regina. Thanks for the insight, I'll be more aware about this and make sure I am patient if someone ever forgets me!!!!

Great post!


Anonymous said...

Article that might interest you:

Oliver Sacks, A Neurologist’s Notebook, “Face-Blind,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2010, p. 36


Mick said...

Don't know what happend I'm sure I commented on this post the other day.
I imagine it must lead to many embarrasing moments.

Regina said...

Sandii - it sounds like you don't have this. You're lucky.

Obesio - yes, I've read some of Oliver Sacks' writing. He's one of my gurus.

Mick - it's an awful thing to live with. The best strategy is to be up front about it and head off offending people, even though saying I have face blindness makes me sound odd.

cindylu said...

I didn't know about face blindness until I listened to an episode of RadioLab (definitely one of my favorite podcasts... good for someone who likes science but leans more to the social sciences and humanities). I think explaining to someone you meet could work, but it's such a foreign concept to most people, especially those of us who don't have any problems remembering faces.

Thanks for sharing this.

Regina said...

Cindylu - Yes! RadioLab is where I learned about face blindness and that's when I identified myself as having it. Thank god for that show!