Today we’re going to talk about something a little different. I thought about including this under the Mental Health Monday heading, but it’s not exactly a mental health issue, though they sometimes go hand in hand.
Face blindness or Prosopagnosia is an inability to recognize people by their faces. You might think it sounds ridiculous, but it’s a real thing–I have it. While I’m not one of the extreme cases (there are some people I can recognize right away and others I’ve learned to recognize just by being around them) it’s still something that impacts my life and requires a lot of work-arounds and compensation in my every day life–honestly, being in isolation and working primarily through email has been a massive relief, because most of my coworkers list their position and have a photo on their email account that makes them easier to identify–just don’t ask me to describe them.
While it’s typically associated with strokes or traumatic brain injuries, some people are born with the disorder, when something in the brain just doesn’t fire correctly. Proposgnosia as a diagnosis didn’t exist until 1976, when it finally became recognized that some people well, can’t. It was known to scientists since 1947 and there are stories about people struggling with it dating back to antiquity.
I didn’t know it was a thing until I started researching autism a few years ago–it’s commonly associated with autism, though it’s not necessarily considered a symptom.
So what does this mean? Well, it means that if I meet you at a convention one year, and then run into you the next, I probably won’t have any idea who you are. It means that if I see a coworker at the grocery store, I usually have to pretend I know who they are because seeing them out of context and in a different style of clothing than I do at the office means I won’t be able to recognize them. It means I can’t draw faces from life because my brain literally can’t see them. I can’t describe what a person’s face looks like. When I go shopping with someone, if we split up for some reason I memorize their clothing because I have no hope of describing their facial features.
As a kid, I frequently got classmates mixed up. When my mom and I visited my dad at the fire house, it was a nightmare because all the men wore the same clothes, with the same hair cuts, and most of them had the same facial hair (mustaches, the only kind allowed in fire service for safety reasons), hair cuts, and uniforms. If a teacher changed their hair or got new glasses, there was a 50% chance I’d mistake them for a substitute. I became a master of the “fake it till you make it” philosophy of being, because it was so embarrassing, and I didn’t want to make anyone angry. I would avoid asking questions, because if someone told me to “ask so-and-so” for more information, I’d have no idea who that person was.
In my case, I wasn’t aware there was an actual problem until art school, when I struggled with portrait and life drawing classes. Sure, I had trouble telling my classmates apart, but I always though that was because they looked so similar. To my eye, my drawings were as detailed as I could make them. To my classmates and instructors, however, they looked flat and bland. Meanwhile, I had no issues drawing from photographs. Photos take a 3D image and flatten it to 2 dimensions. So the same feeling other people get when looking in mirrors or at photos of “the camera adds 10 pounds” or “I look so awful in that photo, what’s wrong with my face?” sort of “translate” the image so that I can actually see it properly.
Normally when I talk about disease and mental disorders, I talk at least a little about the science, but that’s hard to do in this case since it’s not a matter of a hormone imbalance–it’s a wiring problem. It’s like my brain is the latest smart phone, but it’s saddled with a 2 megapixel camera from the early 2000s when I switch to portrait mode. The image is so blurry that I just can’t process it. Meanwhile, if I take a picture of my cats the image is clear and crisp. In developmental prosopagnosia, the problem is caused by lesions in the relevant parts of the brain. Like rust on the connections of a car battery, the charge can’t flow through and the engine won’t start.
I used to have nightmares of getting into cars with people I thought were my parents who really weren’t, or looking for a lost pet only to realize that in a room full of dogs, they all looked identical.
It’s not a life threatening or progressive disorder (well, unless you do things like mistake a serial killer for your best friend, or in cases where a stroke or other illness are involved). Over the years I’ve found a lot of coping mechanisms and ways of dealing, but it’s still something that gives me trouble nearly every day. The only treatment is to retrain the brain to look at other ways of recognizing people, such as through gait, voice, or some other permanent trait.
Research into face blindness is ongoing, not just to help the people living with it, but also because it’s a very narrow portion of the brain to work with, and teaches so much about the brain and how it works. We know so little about our own minds, how connections are made and recalled, and this research could teach us way more than just how to remember who the person in the next cubical is.