I’m learning to live with faceblindness (prosopagnosia)

Awkward situations

I’ve been bad with faces my whole life. There was my friend Emily, to whom I re-introduced myself every time I met her for the first three months of college. More recently, there was my roommate’s friend Tracy, with whom I’ve hung out on several occasions and have not recognized yet. And just a few days ago, a new friend found it hard to believe that I couldn’t pick her out in her own photo album.

Dating is particularly problematic. When meeting a girl I’ve only seen once before, I go into the date aware that I’m not going to recognize her. Generally I get around this by arriving first and smiling at every cute girl who walks in the door, knowing that eventually one will smile back and sit down with me.

I have trouble following some movies because I can’t tell which characters I’ve seen already. (Especially troublesome: mob movies like The Godfather, where everyone’s wearing a suit.) Last Monday, I met a girl at a dinner party, had a great conversation for twenty minutes, and then thought she was a complete stranger an hour later.

I traded emails recently with another faceblind guy who sympathized: “I often say that I never have trouble with the first impression,” he said. “Its typically the second impression that gets me.”

But none of this ever bothered me too much. Having never experienced life any other way, I never felt like I was missing out on anything. In fact, until a few months ago, it never even occurred to me that my experience was unusual.

Self-diagnosis

The turning point occurred when I moved to Seattle last July. Since moving here, I’ve been meeting a lot more people and very quickly found myself dependent on my roommate to keep track of whom I’d met before and whom I hadn’t. It started off being a bit of a joke, but after a few months it became clear that I was significantly worse than everyone I knew at recognizing people.

Eventually, a friend sent me a link to this site on prosopagnosia, or faceblindness. I read the entire site, and it resonated with me. And then I started taking surveys, and it was like the authors were describing my life.

There were questions like “I have trouble recognizing people when they are in uniform” or “I treat strangers as if I know them to avoid offending people I might already know.” I actually have a particular smile that I use when greeting someone that can be interpreted as either, “Hi, nice to meet you” or “Hi, nice to see you again.” I remember when I showed the expression to my roommate and he fell on the floor laughing because he’d seen me make that face so many times.

And then there was this question: “I can recognize particular cats and dogs.” What? I had no idea that most people could do that. I can tell animals by their behavior, or by a distinctive pattern on their coat, but if they’re colored the same, I always assumed no one could tell them apart. My roommates just shook their heads at me…

I don’t like calling it faceblindness because it sounds like something I made up, like how some people say, “Oh, I’m just not good with names.” But there are tests you can take online. I tried one that asked you to recognize eyeglasses, names, and faces. I scored 55th percentile on the eyeglasses, 48th percentile on the names, and 9th percentile on the faces (my detailed results here). It certainly seems like something’s up.

I’ve asked around to see if professional diagnosis or support was available, but the consensus seems to be that the problem is so new and so rare that there are no reliable tests and no real treatment. The analogy is that no one needs a professional to “diagnose” their sexual orientation. In the same vein, if you think you’re faceblind, you probably are.

Life goes on

The most frustrating thing for me is how difficult it makes it for me to connect with new people. Trust me, I wish I could recognize you. I just can’t. When I walk past you and don’t acknowledge you, I’m not snubbing you. And when I recognize your friend but introduce myself to you for the sixth time, it’s not because I like your friend more than I like you. In fact, I might actually think he’s a douchebag, but he’s a douchebag with distinctive, easy-to-recognize sideburns. It can be hard for “normal” people to fully empathize with what it’s like to go through life faceblind, but Face-Blindness and Stones gives some great insight.

I’m learning all sorts of interesting things about prosopagnosia. For example, most people have trouble recognizing faces if the face is upside down. Our facial processing circuitry gets thrown out of whack when faces aren’t oriented the way we expect (case in point, the Mona Lisa illusion). However, some face blind people actually recognize faces better when they’re upside down, because it bypasses the faulty face recognition circuitry and goes straight to the standard pattern recognition circuitry.

I’m learning about myself, as well. I’ve started paying more attention to how I actually recognize people. Clothes seem to be the most important factor, followed by hairstyle (though not hair color), which does explain why I have so much trouble recognizing people on separate occasions. In fact, one of my earliest memories, from when I was still in my crib, is being scared of my own mother, whom I didn’t recognize because she’d just cut off her long hair.

The bright side of all this is that I’m very functional. I read one blog by someone who can’t even recognize herself in the mirror, and someone else who can’t recognize her husband or children. I’m on the milder end of the spectrum, where it just takes some people a lot longer to register in my memory. And once I do learn someone’s face, I have no problem remembering, it’s the initial recognizing them as someone I’ve seen before that trips me up. Most importantly, I can read emotions, getting 29 out of 36 on the Baron-Cohen Eye Test. So I’m not autistic, just faceblind. That’s a relief.

18. February 2008 by Niels
Categories: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 7 comments

Comments (7)

  1. Hey, thanks for posting this. I’d never heard of this before. As with every disorder, folks who don’t rise to the point of having the disorder can still have the symptoms to a lesser degree. For me, I can remember people, but can have a difficult time remembering names, and I do focus on faces to be certain if this is someone I know or who they might remind me of. I know this isn’t the same, but it’s what I can relate to.

    Should we meet, I’m tall, and wear a hat and glasses. I’ll let you know that we haven’t met, but that I’ve commented on your blog a few times.

  2. hi niels! it’s nora, from blair/tp/kp … I wanted to say hi & let you know your blog is terrific. it’s exciting to see people take on life in less-than-usual ways.

    anyway, I thought you might be interested in this — it’s about a magnet student with asperger’s: http://silverchips.mbhs.edu/inside.php?sid=5281

    his story seems like sort of an extreme version of yours — you were far better socially integrated, but you seem to share traits beyond the prosopagnosia: mathmatical talent, social difficulties (this is just from reading what you’ve written — you always seemed to have it pretty together to me, but I was terminally shy! :).

    anyway, it’s exciting to see what you’ve been up to. stay well!

  3. I’m kinda bad with faces AND names… like one time, I met this girl for a date (in vegas) and I’d met her only the night before… as I was waiting, this super-hot girl walked up to me, and I thought “well if my date doesn’t turn up, I can always hit on this girl”… only it was her!

  4. That is a insight into how different we may be. Thank you for articulating this so poetically, and congratulations on realizing: now that you know, coping is probably much easier?

  5. Yeah, being able to put a name to my problem and know that other people deal with the same issue makes things easier.

  6. You don’t know me – I read your blog sometimes because I saw you on Beauty and the Geek years ago, and, well, you write well.

    I am not face-blind. I worked in a position for years where I met literally hundreds of people on any given night. They would all recognize me and expect me to recognize them, but I wouldn’t, because I was meeting hundreds of people that night. I didn’t want to offend them, so I found ways to make them feel recognized even when I had no clue who they were. I actually understand the defense mechanisms you’re using, because I’ve used them myself!

    One of the people I worked with in that position WAS faceblind. I met her again in a different city and recognized her right off the bat (she’s pretty distinctive looking), but she didn’t recognize me (a surprise, as I’m also fairly distinctive-looking). She told me that night she had trouble with faces. I think the NYTimes did an article on faceblindness the very next week. I forwarded it to her, and she seemed very relieved that it wasn’t just her.

    I think this is WAY more common than anyone realizes just yet, and I’m interested to see what research is done on it in the future.

  7. Dearest Niles,

    Just stopping in to check in on you. It’s interesting, because certain facial expressions of yours when you look at people now make perfect sense to me. I have often noticed you looking at people intently with a sense of consternation on your face as if you were noting particular facets of their appearance. How do you normally recognize me, out of curiosity? Do you just look for the loud thing that’s a wide as it is tall :-)?

    A thought: I wonder if prosopagnosia often lends itself to a high degree of mathematical/logical/linear aptitude like you have, almost like being a low level autistic savant. I’m usually in the opposite in that I rarely forget a face, take in big picture data very fast and easily but have a difficulty focusing on minutiae to a degree that borders on ADD.

    -BP

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