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Why Don’t I Remember People’s Faces? Prosopagnosia Disorder

Author:

Glenn Stok is a technical writer who researches health-related issues and shares that knowledge to inform those with similar questions.

prosopagnosia-face-blindness

Are you face-blind?

  • Do you have trouble recognizing people you 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 Prosopagnosia. This article will help you understand it better—and even learn how to deal with it.

Prosopagnosia is a neurological, cognitive disorder that makes it difficult to recognize faces. It’s also known as Facial Agnosia, or Face Blindness.

What Causes Face Blindness?

  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 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:

  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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Reference

1. Prosopagnosia | Wikipedia

2. Steve Bradt. (June 1, 2006). “Face-blindness disorder may not be so rare”. Harvard Gazette

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

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 11, 2019:

Doris James MizBejabbers - Prosopagnosia is related to a region of the brain that recognizes faces. What you describe you and your family members have is “Visual Agnosia” — the inability to recognize common objects. It's related to the visual centers of the brain.

It might be due to a lack of attention, which could be the result of disinterest or lack of education about the specific item.

Try paying more attention to the objects you have trouble with, if that is important to you. See if that helps. If that doesn’t help overcome the problem, then you may have “Visual Agnosia” — Do a Google search on that term to understand it better.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on July 11, 2019:

Glen, I have come back and reread your article because I've discovered a problem that runs in my family that may or may not be connected to prosopagnosia. It affected my mom, me, and my late younger son. In essence, we can't/couldn't see a tree for the forest. Just the opposite for can't see the forest for the trees. We have been teased and ridiculed and had people become impatient with us. My father used to get nasty with my mother because she couldn't see something on the floor or the cabinet he was pointing out to her. My husband did the same thing with my son and me. Finally one day he laid three tools on an otherwise bare shelf and asked my son to hand him a particular one. My son could not pick out the tool although he was working in construction and knew what it was. I can't see things like that either, especially among clutter. Now that I've explained prosopagnosia to my husband, he is very understanding and will come help me find things in front of me that I can't recognize. I know I do have mild to moderate prosopagnosia. Are these two related? If not, can you advise me on how to research it.

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.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on September 14, 2017:

Strangely, I've thought about that, especially since my mother has dementia.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 14, 2017:

Nathan Bernardo - Forgetting names is not related to Prosopagnosia, but it has many other causes such as dementia and alzheimer's. You may be too young for either of those but you should have a doctor check you out if you have any concerns about your forgetfulness, especially if you're noticing a rapid change.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on September 14, 2017:

Interesting subject. Reading this led me to wonder if environmental factors other than injury could lead to this condition; for instance, extreme isolation or trauma. This question came to me because lately I've had more trouble recalling names, which was not a problem for me before, but I kind of blame it on my being isolated quite a bit for about 7 years taking care of my aging mother with dementia (I'm no longer taking care of her and edging back into society currently).

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.