What face blindness (Prosopagnosia) is like...

Well meaning but hilarious from: http://www.31lengths.net/faceblind/

Well meaning but hilarious from: http://www.31lengths.net/faceblind/

I'd like to explain something about a condition I experience called face blindness, (technically called prosopagnosia).

I wrote about it a long time ago, but I still am asked this a lot so I thought I'd write it down. It might not be the same for everyone but...

We're not blind to faces.

 I can see your nose. I see your eyes. I see moles, wrinkles, and hair.

In fact your face is a beautiful thing. A bit enigmatic, a bit changeable; I love the way your moods pass over it like weather. It is fascinating.

I see your face just the way you see mine. I simply don't process it very well, that bit of my brain is inefficient, the rest of my visual memory is excellent.

As I understand it you 'just know' that you recognize me. Even if you can't remember my name. But I don't. Not at all. I have to work out who you are by deduction, hopefully before you notice. And then I realize I can't remember your name either. So how do I do that? Well, it starts with you. That you recognize me, and, because of that, you just gave me a big hello without meaning to.

In fact you just told me a lot of things.

Your body language just told me you know me well, or you know me casually, or you know my work, or you think you know me, or you recognize me from somewhere, or you don't recognize me but you want to check in case I am someone you should recognize (Conferences & Students). Every now and then you tell me that you rather want to know me, which is nice. You probably told me how you feel about me as well, whether you want to talk to me, whether you're cross with me, whether you're hopeful, happy, harried, hurried, hungry or huggable.

I can see what you look like, gender, height, hair, weight, gait, clothes, and your general demeanor.

I know physically where we are, so I am working through everyone with your character traits that are likely to be here, right now.

Meanwhile I give you exactly the same look you just gave me. (Unless I'm in a grump, or distracted, or I missed you)

And by this point we've probably said hi. Maybe we've hugged. Or air-kissed.

So then I hear your voice, and so I know where you are from and my brain is working through everyone you could be, and it's an ever decreasing number given that you are 5ft 11 with short, dry, brown hair, you have freckles, dangly earrings, a long face, wear glasses, are kind of skinny, attractive, confident, well-spoken, smart, west-coast living on the east-coast, you are in my office building, you wear bright clothes with new shoes that create an opportunity for me to compliment you and also look to see if you have a name badge somewhere, you speak fast as if we know each other well, we are sharing a joke about something that happened last year - but at an event with a lot of people - so that doesn't help much. We have mutual acquaintances, there is a spark of curiosity that indicates you haven't worked with me, rather than a warmth or familiarity that says you have. You are carrying a work computer, it's beaten up, you've worked here a long time. You throw in some jargon that ties you down to one group. There are two or three people who could be you in that group and I try a project involving one of those people, something like: "what's happening with project X" and you shrug, so that's not you, and I ask, "Do you rate it?" and then that probably nails it, because you have to give an opinion… but either way it doesn't really matter because as far as you are concerned we totally know each other and we are sharing confidences and you would probably not believe that I still don't actually know who you are, but we insist we should grab some coffee, I make a nice joke about the person that is, in 99% likelihood, your boss, and then we make the usual small talk excuses and try not to walk off in the same direction.

Afterwards I might ask someone I trust who you were, sometimes I accept my best guess, 9 times out of ten I work it out within a minute or so anyway. Occasionally the whole thing is a slow-motion car crash, an excruciating small-talk catastrophe, with me talking in riddles, spouting nonsense, mumbling and committing well-meant but disastrous faux pas; I completely humiliate myself. The weirdest bit is that people rarely seem to realize. Even when I must come across like I'm high or something.

It's a lot easier (but not foolproof) if you are sitting at your desk, or are in my house, or at a dinner party with my partner and I. It's funny how little time is spent not in one of those situations. Friends getting new haircuts is annoying. Fancy dress is a problem. Conferences are bad. Meeting people in the street in NY or London is epic. But then again sometimes I recognize people's hair before they see me and I circle them, waiting for that gesture of recognition, or not. And of course I recognize my family, but not when iPhoto cuts out their faces and asks me who they are. That is just surreal. But then again, why would I have seven thousand photos of the same very pretty girl?

In the end it kind of doesn't matter - mainly because people refuse to believe they might be unrecognizable.

So when my (dearest, closest) friends tell me: "But you recognize me don't you!" and I always say "yes! Of course.", I say that because a) it doesn't matter, and b) it doesn't matter. And c) yes, I do recognize you, kind of, I just don't know who you are.


My eternal thanks to

Brad Duchaine and team

for letting me understand face blindness so I can laugh about it. For 30 years that was not the case. I will always mistake him for Tom Cruise.