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Face blindness (prosopagnosia) and me

Prosopagnosia can be defined as "a cognitive disorder of face perception where the ability to recognize familiar faces, including one's own face (self-recognition), is impaired, while other aspects of visual processing (e.g., object discrimination) and intellectual functioning (e.g., decision making) remain intact." (That's from Wikipedia)

Some people describe and experience it as a disability. It has a few different forms. This page is about my personal experience.

Background: I'm a UK male born in the early 1960s, and father of two children. I am a university lecturer (what's called a "professor" in the USA and elsewhere). I think I've probably always been face blind but wasn't aware that most people were not until I was over forty years old. I have above average IQ (despite blond moments) and as far as I can tell my brain functions more or less normally except for this one aspect. My memory is normal, as is my vision.

Though it does impact on my life (I don't easily recognise my own children, for example, and struggle to recognise my students), I think of it as kind of quirky and interesting, and not a medical condition. Although I have quite severe face blindness, as impairments go it's a relatively OK one to have (I can think of plenty of afflictions I'd not swap it for!). Hence I'm not in favour of medicalising it, and I prefer the plain term "face blindness" over the classical Greek form "prosopagnosia" in every day discussion, and for public awareness (why use classical language for public awareness which is impenetrable to most of the public?). As a psychology lecturer I can switch to the technical term for more technical discussions, but not to make it sound exotic, or me sound educated. That's my personal view, and I respect others.

Me   If I didn't already know this is a picture of me I wouldn't recognise it. I remember once somebody showed me a picture that she carried around with her. It was cropped from a waist-up shot, and looked similar to this, so I didn't recognise the original photo she'd cropped it from. I had to ask who it was.

I have lots of ways of coping, the most obvious being that this is a problem with faces only, so I have the same chance of recognising someone by hairstyle, clothing, context, stature, gait, voice etc as anyone else. There are lots of people that any of us can recognise from behind, and I can do that the same as anyone. I don't know whether it's a learned compensation but I'm relatively good at recognising voices.

The way I see it: normally people are born with an enhanced memory for faces - a special ability that makes faces easier to process and recognise (much like we have a special ability to learn language). I don't have that. So I'm as likely to recognise someone by their face as I am by their hand (I pinched that analogy from someone on the Facebook group). Or, I'm as likely to recognise a face I've seen before as an apple I've seen before. The Wikipedia article has this to say

  "The specific brain area usually associated with prosopagnosia is the fusiform gyrus, which activates specifically in response to faces. The functionality of the fusiform gyrus allows most people to recognize faces in more detail than they do similarly complex inanimate objects. For those with prosopagnosia, the new method for recognizing faces depends on the less-sensitive object recognition system."  

Imagine your mobile phone didn't store contacts and recognise numbers, so it doesn't say who is calling, just shows their number. That's how I start many face to face encounters.

Can you recognise these famous people? (Answers at the bottom of this page.)

Hand 1 Hand 2 Hand 3 Hand 4

And like apples, I can see faces, draw a likeness of one in front of me, see differences between them, and decide whether one is attractive or not. I just find it hard to recognise a particular one if I see it again. (That's my experience, other people experience face blindness differently.) The time I most struggle is when I can see only a face. For example very close up face photos, or when my children would be in a school play all dressed the same with some kind of headware (angels, kings, etc) then I wouldn't know which was mine.

If you saw one of these again, would you know which it was (without trying to learn)?

Four apples

(I must say having assembled what I thought were four similar apples, they look more different to me than most faces!)

Some face blind people have trouble actually perceiving a face. I don't - for me it's about remembering it for later. These are drawings and a painting that I have done. I know who they are because I remember doing them, but to be honest I wouldn't know who these were if it weren't for distinguishing features like hair, instruments, etc. and my memory of doing them. You might not recognise all of them because they are a bit obscure (and from the past!) but these are all famous people I am quite used to seeing. They are all copied from photos, and when I did them I knew they were reasonable likenesses.

Jon Anderson (of Yes) Howard Jones Leonard Rossiter Chris Squire (of Yes)

If I'm watching a movie I struggle when two characters look similar (and to me most Hollywood stars look similar), or if one character has a change of appearance along the way. People who know me get used to me leaning over and asking "Which police officer is that?" or "Who's that?". Though, again, often voice, context or other clues give it away.

I find it particularly hard to recognise people from photos. I think that's because a moving face contains a lot of other information (characteristic facial expressions, for example) that help me.

I would have no way of realising that these four images are of the same person. I can never recognise Madonna because she always changes her hair!

Madonna Madonna Madonna Madonna

 

The Departed movie

This is a still from the movie "The Departed". I've watched the movie several times and find it very difficult because I can't distinguish Matt Damon from Leonardo DiCaprio.

I remember watching a horror movie about a posessed woman. In the movie she often looked in mirrors and saw the face of the woman posessing her, rather than her own. This, presumably expensive and difficult, special effect was completely lost on me until later in the movie when it became apparent through dialogue. They were both women with long, black hair.

I went through much of my adult life not realising that I was face blind, and just assumed everybody struggled and coped like I did.

Having studied psychology as an undergrad and postgrad I have a certain amount of understanding of memory and perception in the brain. I lecture in psychology (and research methods), but my field is criminal and social psychology so I don't have very specialist knowledge about this. I work with people who do, and am lucky enough to be able to tap into colleagues' knowledge and ideas out of curiosity.

I have certain strategies that I find work.

  • When I encounter people (this includes new groups of students) I tell them about it. I ask them to forgive me if I don't recognise them, especially away from uni.
  • If people seem to recognise me, I assume I know them, so I engage in an initial "Hi, how are you?" exchange and almost always by the time they've spoken I know who they are.
  • If I arrange to meet people I try to have a fairly exact meeting place, ideally outside a venue if it's a public place such as a pub. Sometimes, especially with new people, I'll say before meeting what I'm wearing, in the hope they'll reciprocate (even though I may have seen their photo). If they don't, I ask. I always try to be first, so they have to find me rather than me find them.

My most embarrassing face blind moment (that I'm aware of)? Calling at the home of my daughter's friend, to pick up my daughter, and asking the wrong girl if she was ready to come home.

Andy Sutton, 2017

There are lots of good resources on the web, and other people have put together links of lists. Here's mine. A few minutes with your favourite search engine will yield many hits.

The Wikipedia page is good.

Bournemouth University host 'The Centre for Face Processing Disorders'

The UK NHS has a rather medicalised approach which might be helpful for people who suffer from the consequences.

A US based collection of centres host the 'Prosopagnosia Research Centres'.

Faceblind UK has links to some diagnostic tests.

The University of Minnesota in the US hosts Project ProsoFamily aimed at families.

There is a Facebook group where many of us discuss the issue, swap stories (sometimes light, sometimes less so), and exchange tips. It's very active and worth joining.

My friend and colleague Andrew Dunn has some face recognition publications.

 


Celebrity hands:

Hand 1 Hand 2 Hand 3 Hand 4
George Clooney Michael Jackson Leonardo DiCaprio Nelson Mandella

And for those of us who can't recognise celebrities easily, these are: George Clooney, Michael Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nelson Mandella.