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What it’s like to live with face blindness

Chuck Close self-portrait 1967-1968
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center
Chuck Close self-portrait 1967-1968

In its online “Science of Us” column, New York Magazine recently published a fascinating interview with a 47-year-old woman with developmental prosopagnosia, or face-blindness.

People with this rare neurological condition are unable to remember faces — even those of family members, close friends or co-workers. The condition can develop after an injury to the brain, including one caused by a stroke, but it is usually present from birth (thus the adjective developmental). 

Several well-known people have gone public with their face-blindness, including, most notably, neurologist Oliver Sacks, primatologist Jane Goodall and artist Chuck Close

But what is it like to be less famous and live with the condition? The woman in the New York Magazine interview — “a consultant, writer, and part-time EMT from New England” — offers some compelling insights.

Here, for example, is how she described to reporter Alexa Tsoulis-Reay some of the problems that her face-blindness causes her:

It doesn’t matter if I know the person: I’ve walked right past my husband, my own mother, my daughter, my son, without being able to recognize them.

It can be very embarrassing, and it can offend people. I once had to drop a sociology class, because I told the professor, to her face, that she was a horrible lecturer. I thought I was complaining to a fellow student! It’s as if I have a missing chip — you feel like you’re just not trying hard enough. 

And here is how she’s learned to cope with the condition:

Say I showed you a bowl of fruit for 20 seconds. You would remember it as a bowl of fruit. If I let some time pass and asked you to tell me where the apple, pears, and bananas were positioned, you probably wouldn’t be able to. You would have to stare at that bowl of fruit, and commit it to memory, and you would have to know that you had to commit it to memory when you were looking at it.

To tell people apart I have to find a distinguishing feature. And context is huge. If I’m expecting to see somebody, I’ll figure out who they are by observing their body language, listening to their voice. Good-looking people are the most difficult to recognize [because their faces are symmetrical]. …

Straight teeth, noses within regular limits … everything is so … normal! It’s like a flock of chickens. So what I do is look for specific features. I have one friend who’s average height, middle aged, and white, and she works in an office full of average middle-aged white ladies. And even worse, it’s a doctor’s office, so they are all wearing scrubs. If I meet her at work, I can only recognize her if she smiles — it’s very specific. But these are the things I look for: Some people have a distinctive nose; some people have two different-colored eyes.

The woman says her condition definitely had an impact on her social life growing up, making her a bit of an introvert and influencing the kind of people she sought out as friends:

I was always friends with the weirdest kid I could find. I love people with tattoos, piercings, or unusual hairstyles. I can relax around them because they are easy to recognize. I tend to feel very warm toward people who are not considered attractive because I know who they are — wonky teeth, things like that. I have several trans friends. Physical ambiguity might put someone else off but not me. And the same goes for if someone has a disability, like a limp or a missing limb. A face covered in freckles or unsightly scars are great visual hooks for me.

If I were to witness a crime, I’d be a better help to police if the suspect had their face covered. I could tell you what he was wearing and minute details, like that he’d just taken off his wedding ring because he had a tan mark on his hand.

The woman also offers this interesting insight into what it’s like to develop opinions about people when facial attractiveness is not a factor:

While I can appreciate that someone is attractive on an aesthetic level, I don’t feel it on that visceral, “Whoa! They’re hot!” way. At least not when I first meet them. I really only become sexually interested when I have talked to someone long enough to know them. I would be hard work to date. I met my husband at the university science fiction club. He has an incredible voice — he’s a public speaker, his grandfather was a radio announcer, and his father works in television. And he’s the smartest person I know — he used to teach English literature.

As I said, the interview offers an intriguing look at a rare neurological condition that the woman prefers to call “an inconvenience” rather than a disability (although she says the social phobia that has accompanied her face blindness is a disability).  You can read the interview on New York Magazine’s website.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/15/2015 - 10:59 am.

    Levels?

    Interesting–I wonder if there are related disorders. I’m a person who has a hard time both remembering faces and names. For faces, context is HUGE. I might recognize that I know the face, but if seen out of context, remembering names and even why I know them is spotty, at best. If I’m reminded the context within which I know them, their face will suddenly click into my memory and I might even remember their name (though that’s definitely not guaranteed). It’s very embarrassing. It can appear rude, uncaring, stuck up, antisocial, and even racist. I actively avoid having to introduce anyone to anyone else, if possible.

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