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. Note: The exact test I took doesn’t appear to be available anymore, but the Famous Faces Test here may be similar. pk 6/29/20

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.