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Here Is Why You Don’t Recognize People You’ve Met Before

I have this condition known as prosopagnosia, so I can describe its symptoms and explain how to deal with it.

Face blindness, or prosopagnosia, causes difficulty remembering faces.

Face blindness, or prosopagnosia, causes difficulty remembering faces.

How to Know if You Have This Condition

Prosopagnosia (also known as Facial Agnosia) is a neurological, cognitive disorder that laymen refer to as face blindness.

How would you know if you or someone else has this condition?

  1. Do you have trouble recognizing people you recently met? That could indicate you have this problem.
  2. Did you ever notice someone you met recently didn't know who you were? That could be a person who suffers from this disorder.

My Experience With Prosopagnosia

Since I have this condition, I can tell you how it is for me. The fact is that I see people's faces perfectly, but I'm not processing the information. So I’m missing something important—the detailed features of their face.

I don't find it interfering with social skills when having a face-to-face conversation. I notice facial expressions and other forms of body language. And I use that information to know if someone is interested or not. It's an essential social skill, and I'm glad I can do that. However, it doesn't help me recognize the person the next time I see them.

So it's apparent that prosopagnosia does not affect other social interactions. It just causes a failure to process the data and lacking that, my brain doesn't find a match in my memory the next time I see the same person.

To explain it another way, 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.

Luckily, after meeting someone two or three times, I finally process the information enough to recognize them—but that takes several encounters with the person.

How the Mind’s Eye Relates to Face Blindness

When you close your eyes, the parts of the brain that receive signals from the eyes become dormant. However, those parts of the brain that recognize an individual's features become active. So you can visualize a person's face in your mind's eye.

I learned that explanation from an article in Discover Magazine by Carl Zimmer, and I consider it an excellent way to understand face blindness.1

My takeaway from Zimmer's explanation is that if someone has prosopagnosia, their mind's eye is not functioning correctly, and they fail to retain the memory of people's facial features.

How Common Is Prosopagnosia?

Prosopagnosia (Face Blindness) affects 2.5% of the U.S. population.2

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.3

I think it's much higher than 2.5% because when I tell people I have this condition, many admit that they have some form of it too. They tell me they never understood what their problem was and thought they were not paying enough attention or that something was wrong with them.

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Read More From Patientslounge

  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 also had the gene, based on how I remember him compensating for it.

How My Dad Compensated for Prosopagnosia

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.

How Prosopagnosia Affects Different People

While discussing prosopagnosia with one of my friends, he told me, “When my wife introduces me to many people 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 have seen 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 her 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 at 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 You Can Compensate for Face Blindness

I implemented a trick I’ve used throughout my life, even before I knew I had prosopagnosia or knew what it was. I'll tell you two ways how I minimized its effects, and I'm sure it will help you too.

1. Act Friendly With Everyone

My trick was simply to act friendly with everyone if I knew them or not. The results are positive in either case:

  • The people who I already had met would never be the wiser. The only issue is that I don’t refer to them by name. But acting friendly is a practical compromise.
  • The people I don’t know and never met will simply think of me as a friendly and approachable person. That's something everyone should do even if they don't have face blindness.

2. Use Other Identifiable Clues

Another trick is to use other clues to identify people—such as paying attention to unique physical attributes other than the face. For example, try to remember something about their voice, or height or weight. Even the kind of clothing they wear.4

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 couldn't forget that, and it helped me know who she was when I saw 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?

Some Fields of Work Require Perfect Face Recognition

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

Here's an excellent example: Cops need to be able to recognize people even if they just got a glimpse of them. Oh, I would be useless as a witness in a lineup!

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.

A More Severe Condition Is Visual Agnosia

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

However, a more severe condition which causes difficulty with recognizing everyday objects is 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 just have a mild case of it and can live with it, as do I. People with severe cases of prosopagnosia struggle much more, trying to use other recognition methods.

We all have to find a work-around to compensate for it. I hope the methods I mentioned in this article will help you or someone you know.

References

  1. Carl Zimmer. (March 22, 2010). The Brain: Look Deep Into the Mind's Eye. Discover Magazine
  2. Prosopagnosia. (n.d.) Psychology Today
  3. Steve Bradt. (June 1, 2006). Face-blindness disorder may not be so rare. Harvard University Gazette
  4. Prosopagnosia Information Page. (April 01, 2022). 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 USA 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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