How do you recognize your friends? Do you look at their faces, or do you look at the color of their hair and try to remember what they’re wearing?
If it’s the latter, you could have face blindness, or as it’s scientifically called prosopagnosia. It comes from the Greek words prosopon, meaning face, and agnosia, meaning ignorance.
Face blindness is the inability to recognize faces.
People with face blindness usually don’t know about the condition. They think they are just bad with faces and go on living their normal lives, identifying people by their build, hair color, or other traits that stand out.
I mean, you don’t just go around asking people how they recognize others, do you?
They may think that if they pay more attention, they could remember faces.
Once they learn about the condition, it’s like a light comes on, and the world finally makes sense.
What Causes Face Blindness?
Face blindness is an impairment in the right fusiform gyrus, a fold in the brain that is responsible for coordination of the neural systems that control facial perception and memory.
There are two types of prosopagnosia. The most common is congenital, or developmental, prosopagnosia which the person is born with.
About 1 in 50 people are affected by developmental face blindness. It may have a genetic component, and it runs in families.
Acquired prosopagnosia is rare and occurs after a stroke or traumatic brain injury to the occipitotemporal lobe.
Acquired prosopagnosia was discovered before developmental prosopagnosia.
For those with acquired prosopagnosia, one day they can recognize faces, and the next they can’t; it’s a very noticeable difference.
Sometimes face blindness is associated with other disorders such as autism.
People with prosopagnosia don’t have memory problems, learning difficulties, or vision loss.
What Is It Like to Be Face Blind?
Not everyone with face blindness is the same.
While some people won’t be able to recognize facial expressions, others may not even be able to recognize themselves in pictures.
Some find it hard to follow the plot in movies. Without being able to tell the difference between the characters, they can’t enjoy the story.
Others with face blindness may not be able to distinguish between people’s faces and an object.
Many people try to find special traits in a person to identify them. Yet, when they see the person unexpectedly or after they’ve gotten a new haircut, they can’t recognize them.
One person explained what it’s like to have prosopagnosia like this:
“I take a photo of two Canada Geese. I point out that the two geese look different from one another. One has a wider chin strap than the other. One has a whiter chest than the other. Once people say ‘Yes, I see that the two geese are different from one another’, I show them a second picture. The second picture is the same two geese but now in their flock. Oh boy! I’ve yet to meet a person who can find the first two geese in the photo once they see the flock of geese. That’s how it is for me and people. Not that people look like geese, but …. While I’m talking to you I can see your face. I can see your eye color, eyebrow shape, nose shape, chin shape, etc. But once I close my eyes, I cannot describe your face or find you reliably among a group of similar looking people.”
Heather Sellers wrote a book called You Don’t Look like Anyone I Know about her experience with face blindness. She said, “It’s like dyslexia. I know what a face is, but it’s really hard to read faces. [With dyslexia] you know what the word is, but you are going a lot more by context, and it takes a lot of work [to figure it out]. It feels like walking uphill into the wind.”
Face Blindness and Social Anxiety
It is considered very rude to not recognize someone you’ve just met. Therefore, people with face blindness usually develop social anxiety.
They avoid social events and interactions and, in many cases, become depressed.
Some of those with face blindness decide to “come out” as face blind as soon as they meet someone for the first time. Saying something like, “Next time we meet, you need to remind me of your name and where we met before because, I am really sorry, but I will not be able to recognize you.”
Many people have had positive experiences, and no one has been offended. Others wish they never told anyone about their condition.
Some people have been teased after revealing their difficulty with faces. One prosopagnosic told her boss, and the information was used against her to get her fired.
Coming out could put the prosopagnosic in harm’s way when someone knows that they will not be able to remember the face of a robber, for example.
How Is Face Blindness Treated?
There is no cure for face blindness. Though, acquired prosopagnosia sometimes spontaneously resolves on its own.
The current treatment for prosopagnosia is to help the patient develop compensatory strategies.
Some research shows that it is possible to improve facial recognition in those with acquired and developmental prosopagnosia.
A Harvard study gave 24 people with developmental prosopagnosia online training for three weeks. It was based on the theory that normal people take in all parts of the face at once in a holistic way.
They wondered if their training could improve this ability.
The program required that the participants sort faces into two categories based on the spacing between the eyes and eyebrows and the spacing between the nose and mouth.
The more accurate and quick the participants became, the harder the program got.
After the three-week training, the participants showed slight but statistically significant improvement in face recognition when they viewed faces from the front. There was no improvement for recognizing faces from different angles.