Face Blindness: Do I know you?

My essay on what it's like to live with Face Blindness is up on Vermoxie! Head on over to read it... then like it and share it, if you are so inclined:-)

Update: Vermoxie is no longer running... so I'm posting the essay here.

Face Blindness: Do I know you?

“Is that the same guy who was just in the last scene?” my dad asks my mom.

“No, dear. He’s the woman’s husband, the one who stole the car,” my mom says of the man on the screen, Colombo’s primary suspect on the hit murder mystery drama.

This was a typical conversation as my family sat on the couch watching 80s TV. Columbo, Dallas, Mash… my dad was always asking my mom to identify the characters for him from one scene to the next.

Now, as my husband and I watch TV, curled up on the couch, it is me who is asking David to confirm who is who.

“Wait, is that the same girl who was just in the restaurant?” I’ll ask.

“No hon,” David answers patiently, hitting pause so he can explain who is who, again. “That’s the journalist, the one threatening to publish the scandalous article.”

These exchanges have always been a part of my life – a normal and necessary component of watching TV. It never struck me as odd that it took the entire first season before I could tell “Vaughn” apart from “Will” in one of my all time favorite series, Alias. David often teased me about my poor facial recognition, but I never thought twice about it. I just chuckled at the similarity between our exchanges and those between my parents twenty years earlier.

But it turns out, my face recognition deficit is real and it has a name: Prosopagnosia. It is defined as a cognitive disorder where the ability to recognize faces is impaired. About two years ago, David sent me the link to an essay written by a man describing what it is like to live with Prosopagnosia. I identified with every aspect of that essay; he could have been describing my life. My dad and I both have prosopagnosia.

I certainly don’t think of it as a disorder, though; it is more of a social inconvenience. And the term face blindness doesn’t really describe what I experience, either. I see faces and I even see details of faces, but I have a very, very poor memory for those details. The threshold for getting a face to stick in my memory seems to be much higher than for the average person. It is possible, though, and there are a large number of people whose faces I can identify instantly, such as my children, husband, close friends, and co-workers I have gotten to know well. Once a face makes it into my memory, it is there for good. A few years ago I reconnected with a high school friend. I hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years, but I recognized her the minute I saw her, and she looked exactly the same.

But most of the time, I rely heavily on other cues, such as context, hair color and style, accessories such as glasses, clothes, gait, and voice. Of course, everyone uses these cues, but I seem to use them exclusively rather than additionally.

For many years, I was unaware of the fact that I was using these other cues. I assumed I recognized faces, like everyone else. But since David pointed out that I definitely do not fall within normal range of the facial recognition spectrum (and it is a spectrum, just as most cognitive and sensory impairments are), I’ve started to notice that I don’t actually recognize people based on their facial features.

Once, midway through the school semester, a student I had never seen before walked into my class and sat down. I nearly told her she was in the wrong classroom. Luckily I didn’t, because it turns out she was my student, but had dyed her hair from blond to brown over the weekend. At my children’s school, a woman I greeted daily as I walked from my daughter’s classroom to the parking lot simply disappeared from my morning routine. For weeks I wondered why I never saw her anymore, until one day I heard another mom greet the woman I never saw anymore by name on the path to the parking lot. She hadn’t disappeared; she had just cut her very long hair into a bob. In both of these instances, I was astounded by how utterly unfamiliar these women’s faces were to me when their hairstyle changed. I still worry that I offended the woman at school by ignoring her for several weeks, and I wonder how many other people I have inadvertently offended.

Sometimes, my lack of face recognition can be more problematic than simply offending an acquaintance. Once, a man I had never seen before was in our driveway when I returned home from running errands. He greeted me and began talking to my children with a familiarity that made me uncomfortable considering I had no idea who he was. It even seemed he was planning to come inside with me as I unloaded groceries. I grasped for clues as to who he was, rationalizing that I probably did know him. Did I recognize his car? Had he said anything that could at least reveal where we had met?  Finally, he mentioned David’s name and referenced the town he lived in… it was David’s uncle whom we had visited only the week before. He was passing through town and had stopped by our house to say hi. Relieved, I invited him inside.

I have many conversations with people who seem to know me, but whom I have no memory of talking to before. I have learned how to stay in a conversation until some cue in the content of our conversation triggers recognition. Other strategies help hide my lack of face recognition as well. I rarely greet anyone by his or her name. I’ll respond to a “Hi, Karen!” with a simple, “Hi!” because I’m rarely confident enough that I have correctly recognized the person within the first few seconds of an encounter.

I have learned to nod in greeting people who appear to know me as we pass on the street, even if I feel I have never seen them before. I have perfected this nod to pass as either a “Hey, I know you but don’t have time to stop and talk” nod, or a “Hey, I don’t know you, but I’m being friendly” nod, just to cover the bases and avoid offending someone I do know, without coming across as odd to someone I don’t know.

I have learned to accept that I won’t always know who someone is, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a nice chat. If I’m lucky, I’ll figure out who it was after the fact, and eventually, the person’s face will cross the threshold of exposure I need in order for it to enter my memory.

Despite the social awkwardness face blindness can cause, it does have its advantages. I excel at out-of-sight and long-distance recognition. From my desk at work, I can identify who is walking down the hall based on the rhythm of their footsteps or the jingle of their keys. When out and about with my husband or children, I am likely to point out a person walking down the street two blocks away, “Hey! There’s so and so!” and I am almost always right, even if it is the middle of winter and the person is bundled up. I can identify people’s voices quickly and accurately based on only a short snippet of a conversation, even if it is someone I barely know. I am also strangely adept at telling apart identical twins; I suppose it is one case in which non-facial features are more useful than facial features.

Most of the time, I don’t think twice about my face blindness. It is simply a part of my life and I have instinctively adapted to minimize the impact it has on my day-to-day. Besides, unless someone gets a drastic haircut or purchases a new winter coat, my recognition strategies are very effective.

I often wonder if any of my daughters inherited this deficit. Over the summer, when my seven-year-old called out in excitement at the Fourth of July race, “Hey! There’s Jacob! I can tell it’s him by his shoes!” I wondered if it was a sign of prosopagnosia, or if she is simply a typical, observant kid who is tuned into the trendy brand of shoes her classmates wear.

Considering I didn’t even know I had a deficit until my mid thirties, it won’t bother me if my children have prosopagnosia as well. I’m sure they’ll adapt, as my father and I have, and if nothing else, those in the family who don’t have it will enjoy a few laughs at our inability to recognize even our most favorite TV characters... or in some cases, our relatives.