You Might Have Face Blindness if You Can’t Recognize People: Prosopagnosia
What is Face Blindness?
Known as Prosopagnosia, or Facial Agnosia, it's a neurological cognitive disorder that makes one unable to recognize faces.
- Do you have trouble recognizing people who you just recently met?
- Did someone you met once before not know who you were?
I have always had difficulty remembering people's faces after meeting them the first time. After researching the condition, I learned that I have mild face blindness. This article will help you understand it better—and even learn how to deal with it.
What Causes Face Blindness?
- Face blindness can be inherited, which is known as Congenital Prosopagnosia.
- 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 is reported to affect 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 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. 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 peoples 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.
Some 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 since he finally understands what’s causing these situations. She said that kind of thing happens to her every once in a while.
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 them or not. There are two positive results from these cases:
- 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.
- 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.
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 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 an excellent 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
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.
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.
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.
Unless it's caused by injury, face blindness seems to run in families. Both my sister and my dad had to deal with it. The one 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.
It’s only people with severe cases that struggle with it. In any case, we all have to find a work-around to compensate for 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Glenn Stok