Prosopa ….. what???

When I first heard about Faceblindness, on Good Morning America, several years ago, I thought to myself, “what an excuse … they’ll make up a ‘condition’ for anything.”

I didn’t really attach the term “faceblindness” to any part of my life until the accumulation of years of dealing with my children’s friends (and my inability to tell them apart) merged with the time I didn’t recognize film student and acquaintance Rich Wills and I decided it may be time to try to figure out what I was dealing with.

According to the Prosopagnosia Research Centers: “Prosopagnosia, also called face blindness, is an impairment in the recognition of faces. It is often accompanied by other types of recognition impairments (place recognition, car recognition, facial expression of emotion, etc.) though sometimes it appears to be restricted to facial identity. Not surprisingly, prosopagnosia can create serious social problems. Prosopagnosics often have difficulty recognizing family members, close friends, and even themselves. They often use alternative routes to recognition, but these routes are not as effective as recognition via the face.”

When I try to explain it to people (which I do rarely), I tell them to imagine they have been handed a dozen identical red roses. Then one is removed. Then the bouquet is shuffled around. When the flowers are reunited, the individual should identify the one that had been isolated prior to the shuffling. It’s impossible to do. Same with me and faces, especially in situations such as:

  • female dancers in matching costumes, who all have their hair pulled back and similar makeup
  • any team whose members are all in identical uniforms, especially if they have hats on

I could keep on going with the examples. If someone approaches me in a situation where they are dressed differently than usual (i.e., I see a runner friend in street clothes), it is an issue. When I supervised a group of kids at Skate World playing foosball recently and had to find the kid who had qualified for the semifinals, I might as well have been looking for a needle in a haystack to identify the particular child who just five minutes earlier had qualified. Name tags are my friend, let’s just put it that way!

There are some assessments that can help an individual determine if their difficulties with facial recognition are related to prosopagnosia, such as:

The Famous Faces Test. For reference, I correctly identified 42 of the 72 faces (58%). According to the test administrators, anyone who correctly identifies less than 65% of the faces may have face recognition difficulties.

The Cambridge Super Face Memory Test. For reference, I correctly identified 47 out of 72 faces on the test. The average person who takes this test correctly identifies 57 out of 72 faces. My percentile score was 9, meaning I scored higher than 9% of people who took this test.

Now, on the scale of things that turn people’s worlds upside down, this is not one of those things. However, when I start discussing prosopagnosia with someone, usually someone I most certainly should have recognized because we have a long history with one another, and I share my faceblindness with them by way of explanation, I do it because people are so important to me. When I fail to recognize them immediately (or at all) and give them a blank look instead, I also fail to warmly convey how important they are to me.

That is why I took this initial stab at explaining faceblindness. To be specific, my faceblindness.

Let’s do this for a solution (barring a complete reversal, which is unlikely). The next time I give you that deer in the headlights/I have no clue who you are look, feel free to tell me, “I am [insert your name here]. I am important to you, remember?” Seriously, feel free.

Resources about Faceblindness:

Faceblind.org, a/k/a The Prosopagnosia Research Centers (this is a three-institution entity, hence the “centers”)

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Website of Heather Sellers Heather Sellers, who wrote a book called “You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know” attended graduate school in Tallahassee. I have heard her interviewed, and I don’t know why I keep avoiding reading the book, which I think I will relate to and find commonality with. It’s on the list!

A March 2012 Sixty Minutes Piece About Faceblindness

Click here for the website of famous author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, who is faceblind.

25 thoughts on “Prosopa ….. what???

  1. Me, too! I was always amazed how well other people were able to tell each other apart, but it never occurred to me that there was actually a reason until one day a rather short, attractive woman said, “Hi” to me in Fred Meyers. As usual, I had no idea who she was and tried to shine her on as I usually do. She was having none of it! “You don’t know who I am, do you?” I had to admit that I didn’t. “I’m Dr. Smith and you just saw me yesterday.” You can imagine how stupid I felt not recognizing my primary care physician. “I think you might have Prosopagnosia.” She got me tested and, sure enough, there’s an actual reason I don’t recognize my brother or even photographs of myself. It doesn’t change a thing, but it’s nice to know it isn’t just me.

    • Hello Harjot. Thank you for your comment. I am impressed that your PCP knew what prosopagnosia was and took the step of helping you realize you had it! I failed to recognize our family’s cardiologist once — it was in the mall so she didn’t have her lab coat (with the name on it!) and it was completely out of context. I had to ask her who she was. Yeesh!! And I agree — it’s nice to know we’re not alone in this!!

  2. You said:
    “The next time I give you that deer in the headlights/I have no clue who you are look, feel free to tell me, “I am [insert your name here]. I am important to you, remember?” Seriously, feel free.”

    Yes, that’s exactly the advice I give to people now. Saves a lot of hassle afterward.

    With most people, the response either OK, or that’s wierd, and we both have a good laugh about it. I go away knowing I now won’t offend a good man or woman needlessly.
    With < 1% they start to back off from this brain damaged freak (it might be catching). I go away glad that I don't have to know someone like that.

  3. I had no idea I was moderately faceblind until I started working in retail. Had some fairly embarrassing situations. Thankfully, it was during that time that I first heard of prosopagnosia. Yes, most people don’t really seem to believe that there actually is such a condition, one person even seemed to take pleasue in me getting slightly embarrassed at not knowing who he was (again!), but generally I have few problems, since I’m not very social anyway.

    • Oh RETAIL!! Yes!! What a challenge. I also struggle with the fact that I am liaison to about 10 organizations, and I see their senior staff about 4-5 times a year, which is certainly long enough for me to lose any ground I had made on figuring out who was who! Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  4. I just recently watched a documentary on this condition-it was fascinating. The documentary focused on people who had 100% face blindness. Your post is a reminder that this condition can come all varying degrees.

    Velva

    • Velva, first of all don’t worry about grammar. I rarely give myself that luxury but I would much rather have a comment with imperfections than no comment at all. Anyway, YES – there are definitely varying degrees. Mine is much milder than some people I have read about and heard about. I am pretty sure I read that there is a summer camp for kids with Faceblindness. I’ll just BET they have nametags there. 🙂

  5. Hi Paula! You’ve done a wonderful job of explaining prosopagnosia here. We each use our own words and methods to explain it, and there is nothing wrong with that. As long as we communicate what it means to us, and any accomodations we might need, we can begin the process of getting the social assistance we need that will help make our lives just a little easier.

    In addition to my web site about prosopagnosia (link above), I have written a bit about prosopagnosia on the web site of Psychology Today on my blog there: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/face/
    I am currently working on a few more blog entries which are in various states of the writing process. I’ve noticed, lately, that there are now a lot of people writing about prosopagnosia. Maybe it is time to put together a more concise list of people who are blogging about prosopagnosia and where their blogs are located. Perhaps I will try to do that in the next few weeks.

    • Thanks Glenn! I will check out your blog (which I do visit occasionally) and I think it’s a great idea to do some type of directory or compilation of FB/Prosopagnosia bloggers!

  6. I am in a lot of networks of people I only see sporadically, so I’ve gotten to the point where I tell people at the end of the first meeting about my prosopagnosia, and that I probably won’t know them the next time I see them, so they should come remind me and not think I’m ignoring them. It helps a lot the next time I see them and don’t recognize them, and the time after that, and so on.

    • Good idea! I do that *sometimes* or shoot an email to someone I really feel I want to connect with in subsequent meetings. Writing this blog helps — I can send the link to give them food for thought.

  7. Hi Paula, I only learned about prosopagnosia in the last few years, I always thought it was just my poor memory. It brought tears to my eyes when I attended a London meeting in December 2013 and heard so many people telling what felt like my own story. I have always assumed mine developed or rather didn’t because I am very short sighted and didn’t get glasses till I was 8 so faces were always a blur. At the London meeting I learned that poor eye contact is a feature for most people with this and I’m wondering which came first because I find true eye contact rather scary, so what are we sensing when we gaze into another person’s eyes? I can get to recognise people after I’ve met them four or five times in different contexts, but find face photos tricky because there’s no movement, so I obviously use movement, clothes and context to remember who people are. It gets tricky at work sometimes when I can’t recognise important people! I try to explain and we laugh about it and they usually say oh yes, I forget names too. Many thanks for your blog.

    • Thanks Carmel and I apologize for taking so long to respond. It definitely helps to find others in the same situation.

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  11. I can sympathize. I think I may have a very mild form of faceblindness myself. I’m generally good with names, and I seem to be better with men or children’s faces, but most women seem rather “generic” to me for some reason and it has led to many embarrassing situations, especially at blog conferences where I may meet 50-100 women in just a few days. Then I will run into them at the next conference or event and even if I’ve spent time with them, had a meal or a long conversation with them, I will just look at them blankly. Thank heavens most of these conferences have name tags, but trying to remember someone’s name, their blog name, their Twitter handle, etc. Is just crazy-making. That’s why I love people who have a particularly vibrant or quirky personality. They really stand out in the crowd.

    • I can CERTAINLY relate!! If it were up to me, nametags would be mandatory 24/7!! What disturbs me the most (and I’m probably repeating myself) is that people walk away thinking I don’t care or don’t consider them special. I honestly don’t know how elementary school principals (or teachers for that matter!) do it! The only thing time has taught me is to just be honest — if someone thinks I am making an excuse or just too weird, then I can probably live without them anyway!! 🙂

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