July 18, 2006

Prosopagnosia.

The inability to recognize faces.
People with face blindness can typically understand facially expressed emotions — they know whether a face is happy or sad, angry or puzzled. They can detect subtle facial cues, determine gender and even agree with everyone else about which faces are attractive and which are not. In other words, they see the face clearly, they just do not know whose face they are looking at, and cannot remember it once they stop looking.
How strange. A person with this problem must have many painful social encounters, especially before being diagnosed. On the other hand, many of us are just lazy about noticing and remembering people. We could make casual claims of prosopagnosia, the way we make casual claims of attention deficit disorder.

22 comments:

Maxine Weiss said...

With plastic surgeons making everyone look all alike....it's no wonder.

One generic look for all.

Society becoming less distinctive, less original. Nothing unique.

Of course, this disease is on the rise.

Peace, Maxine

Ann Althouse said...

Yeah, I was just looking at a photograph of Marilyn Monroe and thinking: today, they'd never leave her nose like that.

topher said...

I myself have this disorder, and like the people in the article didn't realize it until I was an adult.

One of the interesting effects that it has it that it makes watching movies difficult if the characters don't look different in some significant way. For instance, I thought the Di Nero and Pacino characters in Heat were the same person for like the first 40 minutes. Changes the whole plot if you think the cop is in on it the whole time.

amba said...

What's really amazing is the normal brain's ability to remember and recognize thousands of faces (even if the names that go with them escape us). It's on a par with dogs' ability to remember and recognize individual smells.

Here's more on face blindness from a first-person point of view -- utterly fascinating.

Rick Lee said...

I saw something on TV about this recently. A VERY common occurence is for a person to tell someone that they have this disorder and for the other person to say "Oh, yeah, I have that too"... meaning of course that they have trouble remembering names... not understanding that this is a serious neurological condition. One person was able to function at work because all of her co-workers voluntarily wore name tags. I thought that was great.

Slide Test Blog said...

Yeah, I have it mildly. I find I can remember a person's face only if I stare it for a few moments and say the name in my head. Not a guarantee, but it usually works. Once I can recognize a person, I don't forget him again.

Yes, it does lead to awkward situations. I get out of them by saying, "I'm terrible with names," which isn't true, but people tend to take it less personally.

AJ Lynch said...

I am the opposite- I never forget a face. I forget names but never faces. Could be 20 years and I remember your face.

Buddy Larsen said...

Tom Hanks' SNL skit a few years back--he had zero short-term memory, and was snacking at a cocktail party, and in addition to the conversational difficulties of immediately forgetting what the other person had just said, he kept forgetting he was chewing. Crack-up--

johnstodderinexile said...

I have the opposite problem. I remember virtually every face I've seen for longer than a few seconds. I see faces all the time that I know I've seen before, but can't remember who, where or when. When watching a movie or TV show, the effort to try to remember is distracting. When I used to work in downtown Los Angeles, I became anxious whenever I saw a face down the sidewalk that I'd seen before, worrying that it would be embarassing if they came up and started talking to me, and I wouldn't remember who they were. Living in LA, you see minor celebrities all the time, and I get confused as to whether I've seen them on TV or in real life.

dick said...

I have the problem with names. I remember faces and if you tell me their telephone number, the SSN or the license number, I will remember that. I just don't remember names. It is weird because I can remember almost anything else about them but that.

I think women are much better at this than men are. I have women friends who can remember the maiden name and all the married names with just hearing them once. I forget the name of someone I have been introduced to 5 minutes before. I remember when I was consulting that they would make a big deal of introducing you to everybody in the area. Total waste in my case. Maybe after I have worked with them for a while I will remember the name but right away? Forget it.

Jim H said...

Topher: Do you consciously seek clues as to identity to compensate for this? Are you able to easily recognize people close to you based upon context?

I've read about this, but I had no idea so many people have the disorder until I followed the link to the Times article. Study of the disorder could give us insight into evolutionary development, but I'm unable to predict what that would be.

Marghlar said...

A while back, in my former life, I worked on a play which involved a much more profound version of this disorder -- the main character (based on a real-life account) suffered from a total visual agnosia. As a result of a stroke, he lost the ability to identify any object visually. He could see all the colors and shapes, but could no longer do the computations required to associate them with physical objects. It was a pretty disturbing story.

topher said...

Jim H -

A brand new situation, like the first day at a new job, is the toughest. I consciously memorize people's outfits in situations like that. Of course when you have a variety of ages and sexes and hairstyles, etc., it's not that difficult, but being in the software industry we don't have much variety so it's pretty hard to distinguish between people anyway.

Context IS a lot of how prosopagnostics recognize people. When I was younger I had a friend who delivered pizzas. One day he showed up at my door unexpectedly, wearing his uniform, carrying an extra pizza he brought over for me. He let me argue with him for a surprisingly long time that I didn't order any pizza. I didn't have even a glimmer of recognition. That was actually the point at which I realized I had some kind of issue.

Like the person from amba's link, I've also not recognized people from my family. Again, context. Running into them in the mall, when it's unexpected, I have little chance of recognizing them. At Thanksgiving dinner? Then it comes together for me.

Unlike some of the people from amba's link, however, I don't think it's necessarily isolating. One advantage is that it forces me to be engaging and friendly with anybody who makes eye contact with me in social situations, parties, even at the grocery store - because I'm not sure if we've met before or not.

Like they say, a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet? Well, with prosopagnosia you're never sure that you haven't already met, so you just end up treating everyone like you're already friends.

Slopoke said...

Imagine the problem with voting when you can't remember the face.

aaron said...

Hmmm. Maybe I have prospagnosia. Then again, it's probably just ADD.

Are there varying degrees?

aaron said...

I usually recognize people by their style, manurisms, voice, posture, gait, etc.

If you get a different hair-cut, I might not recognize you until you get my attention. Same if we meet outside of an unexpected context.

Ann Althouse said...

Marghlar: That's the subject of Oliver Sack's book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" -- one of my favorite books.

HD_Wanderer said...

Fascinating. I've never heard of anything like that. Great post, thanks.

Marghlar said...

Ann: I know -- his book was part of the source material used by the author to create the new play. I also enjoyed the book a great deal.

Interestingly enough, later on I became friends with a person who was actually one of Dr. Sack's patients, and said that in person, he was a jerk.

amba said...

Topher --

I'm not sure if we've met before or not.

On the other hand, if you had déjà vécu, you'd think you'd met them ALL before!

My_Life_Jaqui said...

I have prosopagnosia, I can recognize the people in front of me when I know who they are on on an intimate level, and when I see them I do see their face very clearly. I'd like to think that I can tell who is beautiful, but personality is what I'm attracted to.

But It's when they walk away... They become a memory that I can't recall the fine details of. But I will remember the way they walk, the sound of their voice and the way they carry themselves.

Margaret Mary Myers said...

Today I started back to college and after the class, one of the students said hi to me in a very friendly, open way. Of course I responded to him in like kind because I'm friendly, too, but I wondered if he was just friendly & welcoming this non-traditional (older, ahem, 60 yr old) student, or if maybe I knew him from the class I took last semester, or from the community. I get frustrated about these things, even after all these years. I do recognize faces of those I know well, but I can't usually picture them in my mind when I'm not with them. If I don't see my kids for awhile, then when I see them again, I feel like, "Oh! THAT'S what you look like!" Even though I recognize them, it's still like a happy surprise. I like to say I fall in love with people all over again each time I see them.