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Face Blindness: This Is Why You Can’t Recognize People

Author:

Glenn Stok is a technical writer who researches health issues he experienced. He writes about them to educate readers seeking information.

prosopagnosia-face-blindness

Have you ever experienced this:

  • You have trouble recognizing people you recently met.
  • Someone you met once before didn't know who you were.

This article will help you understand why this is happening.

What Causes Face Blindness?

Face Blindness is a neurological, cognitive disorder called Prosopagnosia (also known as Facial Agnosia) that makes it difficult to recognize faces.

  1. Face blindness can be inherited, which is known as Congenital Prosopagnosia.
  2. It can also be caused by brain injury, damaging the brain’s cognitive ability to visualize faces and connect them with memories.

In the first 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 the gene as well, based on how I remember him compensating for face blindness. I'll discuss that in a moment.

How Many People Have Congenital Prosopagnosia?

Prosopagnosia affects 2.5% of the U.S. population.1

In addition to that, Harvard University, and University College London created a diagnostic test for prosopagnosia that determined many more people might be burdened by it than previously thought.2

I think it's much higher than 2.5% because ever since I began telling people that I have this condition, many admit that they have some form of it too. They tell me they never understood what their problem was until I brought this up.

My friends tell me that they thought they were not paying enough attention or that something was wrong with them.

What Are Face Blindness Symptoms?

As one with face blindness, I can tell you that I see people's faces perfectly. I'm just not processing the information. I’m missing something important—the detailed features of their face.

When I have a face-to-face conversation, I even notice nuances and facial expressions. I use that information to know if someone is interested in the discussion or not. It's an essential social skill. However, none of this helps me recognize the person the next time I see them.

So, why am I telling you this? To make it clear that prosopagnosia does not affect other social interactions. What it does do is cause a failure to process the data. Lacking that, my brain doesn't find a match in my memory bank the next time I see the same person.

The vision of one's face is evident while I'm looking at them, but I don't save that image in my brain for later retrieval. Usually, after meeting someone two or three times, I do finally process the information enough so that I recognize them—but this takes time.

Are There 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 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, before that, things can be a little embarrassing.

People with severe cases of prosopagnosia never recognize others, not 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.

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 that he finally understands what’s causing these situations. She said that kind of thing happens to her every once in a while.

How to Compensate for Face Blindness

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.

Act Friendly With Everyone

My trick was simply to act friendly with everyone if I knew them or not. There are two positive results from these cases:

  1. The people who I already had met would never be the wiser. The only issue is that I don’t reference them by name. Nevertheless, the friendliness I put forth overpowered that.
  2. The people who I don’t know and never met will simply think of me as a friendly and approachable person. That works. At least it never caused a problem.

Use Other Clues for Recognition

Another trick is to try to retrain yourself to use other clues to identify people. Strategies such as paying attention to other unique physical attributes besides the face. Try to remember something about their voice, or the clothing they wear.3

How My Dad Compensated for Face Blindness

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 research later in life, it gave me an appreciation for what my father was going through.

His way of dealing with it was an excellent way to avoid the embarrassment of not showing recognition of a patient of his. Saying hello to everyone solved the problem. I wonder if he knew what it was in those days.

Can Face Blindness Be Cured?

There is no cure, but observing non-facial features can help override the effects of face blindness. I compensate by noticing the outstanding features one might have.

If someone has a feature that stands out dramatically, I'll try to remember that so I can recall who that person is when I see them again.

For example, I once met a very tall, thin woman at a party. I could look straight at her eyes while chatting because she was my height. I can't forget that, and it helps me know who she is when I see her again.

Another feature is the way people walk. Sometimes I notice someone has a unique gait, or they hold their shoulders oddly. These things stand out, and I remember that better than the face itself.

What about you?

Does Anyone Have Perfect Face Recognition?

I remember when I was in elementary school, I had teachers that would know every student right from the start. If they ran into any one of us in the hallway, they recognized us, and they knew us by name, even after the first day of school! That proves it’s possible to have zero problems with face recognition.

Cops need to be able to recognize people even if they just got a glimpse of them. Oh, I would be terrible in a lineup! I would probably let the thief off the hook and not even know it.

Video on Living With Face Blindness

There are many videos on YouTube where you can learn more about Prosopagnosia. The video below is one of the best I've found.

Visual Agnosia

Prosopagnosia is associated with a specific region of the brain that recognizes faces. The condition is limited to difficulty with recognizing faces.

However, a more severe condition which causes difficulty with recognizing everyday objects is known as Visual Agnosia. That is associated with the visual centers of the brain.

Visual Agnosia is not the same as Prosopagnosia. But I felt I should mention this for completeness.

In Conclusion

After I meet someone two or three times, I get to know them, and I no longer have trouble picking them out in a crowd.

Face blindness seems to run in families unless an injury causes it. Both my sister and my dad had to deal with it. The type we have is Congenital Prosopagnosia, the genetic type. We all have learned to compensate for it in some way, as I discussed in this article.

Some of my friends tell me they have been aware of a similar problem. They all just have a mild case of it. They can live with it, as do I.

People with severe cases of Prosopagnosia struggle much more with it, trying to use other methods of recognition. Nevertheless, we all have to find a work-around to compensate for it. I hope the methods of compensation I mentioned help you or someone you know with the condition.

References

  1. "Prosopagnosia" - Psychology Today
  2. Steve Bradt. (June 1, 2006). “Face-blindness disorder may not be so rare”. Harvard University Gazette
  3. "Prosopagnosia Information Page" - National Institutes of Health - nih.gov

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2017 Glenn Stok

Comments

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on July 12, 2019:

Doris - Looks like you have an answer with the MVP. It must be frustrating for you, and requires extra effort. It's not easy.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on July 12, 2019:

Thank you for naming it for me, Glenn. It is not a matter of lack of attention. In fact, the harder we concentrate, the "blinder" we get. My doctor told me years ago that mytral valve prolapse, which she diagnosed in me, causes a lack of eye/brain coordination. I will look up visual agnosia. MVP runs in the family.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on July 12, 2019:

Paula - Thanks for your comment. We humans are complex creatures and things do go wrong. Just like it is with computers, the human brain can malfunction in some ways, and have better capabilities with others.

I always find it extremely interesting how various people have strong abilities with certain things that others find difficult.

Thanks again, Paula, for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

Suzie from Carson City on July 12, 2019:

Glenn.......Thanks for once again, teaching me something new & presenting a fascinating article. While I feel for you and have my own neurological cognitive disorder, (directional dysfunction) I am not part of the 2.5% of victims of Prosopagnosia. In fact, I'd say quite the contrary. It is faces, voices & mannerisms I remember best of all, as I simultaneously draw a total blank for their names! Can't win, can we Glenn? I find it extra interesting to know there's a genetic connection in terms of this particular disorder. It shouldn't surprise us though, since so much is ruled by our genetic make-up.

Thanks, Glenn for yet another great read. Peace, Paula

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on July 30, 2018:

Yes, Zulma, that's exactly the same with me — about 2 or 3 times at the most, and then somehow their face gets printed in my mind for good. Those experiences we share can be embarrassing at times, but we learn to overcome them by some means, as you have too. Thanks for sharing your own experience with prosopagnosia.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on July 30, 2018:

What a relief to know I'm not the only one with this problem. I have to meet someone at least 2 or 3 times before their face finally sticks in my memory. It's lead to people thinking I was stuck up because I would walk right past them without greeting them. As a result, I don't socialize much. When I do go out, I like to have a family member with me so they can prompt me to greet someone they know I've met.

Thanks for sharing this with us. I don't feel so bad now.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on April 17, 2018:

RedElf - Isn't it great to at least understand now what it is? I’ve beaten myself up too when I was young, not understanding why others had no problem recognizing me.

Now that I discovered this is an actual condition, I just share that knowledge with people. And they understand. Many even say they have a similar problem but never understood it.

Sharing solves the problem most of the time. It’s amazing how many people actually have this issue to some degree.

RedElf from Canada on April 17, 2018:

I've heard about this but had no idea it was a real condition - or that it could be present in less extreme forms. I've beaten myself up for years believing what I had been told - that I didn't care enough about people to recognize them on seeing them again.

It was very bad in my teen years, and still occurs sometimes under stressful circumstances, particularly when I'm not expecting to see a particular person. I generally try to pass it off with humor, and looking for something singular about them really helps, too.

It can be horribly embarrassing - like one time my son showed up at my workplace and I didn't recognize him til he spoke. I'm just grateful he was far enough away I could pretend it was because I wearing my reading glasses, and couldn't see that far. It can be awkward though, and sometimes people think I'm cold or unfriendly when I don't know them right away. So I try to do like your dad - I smile and greet everyone, and never mind about names til I'm sure who the heck they are. Thanks for this.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on September 18, 2017:

Glad to see a name put to this. I've always said I have trouble remembering faces.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on September 15, 2017:

I didn't know this existed, how interesting. It must be difficult to live with this, but it sounds like you have coping mechanisms in place.

I think putting a name to it helps, and makes it easier to find information about it.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 13, 2017:

Dora - You brought up a very interesting point. When people don't seem to know us, we can be understanding of the possible reason for it, and not take it personally. They might just have face blindness.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 13, 2017:

Wow! I don't remember hearing this word before, let alone what it means. Thanks for the education. We are never sure why someone we met recently acts as though he or she has never seen us.

Princess from PH on September 13, 2017:

i feel different like i know who that is, but is that really him/her? anyways, nice knowing this stuff!

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 13, 2017:

MizBejabbers - Exactly. That's how I compensate for it too. When there is enough variety in a persons features, it makes it easier.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on September 13, 2017:

Thanks for sharing this in an article. It explains a lot. All my life I've heard people say, I can remember your face, but I can't remember your name. I always knew that I was just the opposite. I never forgot a name, but I had trouble remembering faces, especially if they were out of context or sometimes if they were of another race. Like some of the others, I have problem telling similar looking people apart, especially characters on TV. I love it when they have a variety of looks, like race, hair color, size and shape.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 13, 2017:

Eugene - I had read Oliver Sacks book many years ago. I was thinking of mentioning it in the article, but it's an extreme case, so I left it out.

As for remembering names, that is a completely different thing, not related to face blindness.

Eugene Brennan from Ireland on September 13, 2017:

I think Oliver Sacks may have covered this as one of the case studies in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat"? It's about 20 years since I read the book, but it sounds familiar.

Eugene Brennan from Ireland on September 13, 2017:

I often have problems recognising people out of context or when they are wearing different to normal clothes. Usually it's when they have a non-distinctive "plain" face. I'm terrible as regards remembering people's names. If someone who I know greets me in the street, it can take me a couple of seconds to try and resurrect the name. After a year in secondary school, I still didn't know all the names of the people in my class.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 12, 2017:

Names are my problem. Faces and anything I've seen I can recall in a snap. (For this reason I've always preferred reading something to having it explained.). I found your account very interesting and like the ways you mentioned that you and your dad adapted to it. I imagine having this condition might impact one's career choice -- for example, for a police office, clergyman, or psychologist it would be much more challenging professionally if you didn't recognize people you'd met.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 12, 2017:

Thanks for sharing that Sherry. Please put that vote in the survey too, so it's included in the statistics.

Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on September 12, 2017:

I think I have a very slight case of this. I usually recognize faces I have seen before (putting a name to them is a different story.) However, I often confuse two people I have met before who have similar features.

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