Face blindness means you can’t even recognise yourself

Face-blindness is something you don’t come across every day. You’ve heard of people having difficulty remembering names, of course, and sometimes finding it hard to put the right word to certain everyday objects. But having face-blindness, i.e. being unable to recognise even your nearest and dearest is almost unknown, at least to the general public. Surprisingly, though, it’s a condition that’s fairly common. As many as one or two in every hundred people are thought to suffer from prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face-blindness.

You never forget a face … or do you?

Sisters Donna Jones and Victoria Wardley

Sisters Donna Jones and Victoria Wardley, who   can hardly recognise each other … or themselves!

It’s almost a standing joke that no matter how much trouble you have remembering names, you practically never forget a face. And it’s true – even the most name-blind amongst us finds it remarkably easy to remember faces, even if we often can’t ‘name that face’. And we often recognise people we haven’t seen for years, even decades, when it’s fairly obvious on closer inspection that they’ve changed quite a lot in the intervening period.

Sisters, Donna Jones and Victoria Wardley, have suffered from face-blindness for years, and Donna, 30, always felt bad about it and blamed herself. Not realising she was face blind, she kept looking for reasons for her inability to recognise people.

She was unaware that they both had the condition that results in major difficulties when it comes to facial recognition.

“I’d always thought I just wasn’t paying enough attention to people. In a way it was a relief to know something was wrong.

“I’d gone up to men in supermarkets thinking they were my partner, only to realise I’d grabbed hold of the wrong man!
I even find it hard to pick out my daughter in a crowd. I feel so guilty sometimes. I should know what my own child looks like – but I just find it impossible.”

Diagnosing memory problems … in the coffee shop

In fact, the only reason they now know that their problem is actually a medical condition is that Victoria’s doctor became suspicious. He’d been calling in to the coffee shop where she worked for quite a while and wondered why she never acknowledged him. He suspected prosopagnosia, so he asked her to call in to see him and they discussed the situation. After the sisters underwent tests, they were both diagnosed with face blindness, which apparently can affect up to one in 50 people, at least to some extent.

Face-blindness can vary greatly in intesity, from a mild form to very severe. Their condition is so severe that they barely even recognise themselves, or each other. Victoria explains it like this:

“When I see someone’s face it’s like tunnel vision. I can make out an eye or a nose, but when I try and look at a whole face it just doesn’t work. It’s like a blank canvas on someone’s head. People I’ve known for ages
will come up to me in the street, but until they introduce themselves I have no idea who they are”.

She goes on to explain: “I’m not really sure what I look like, and I couldn’t even describe my husband to you either. We rarely take any pictures because there’s no point – we’d have no idea who was in the photo!”

Facial recognition simply not working

the fusiform gyrus

The fusiform gyrus, the area of the brain
responsible for facial recognition

The area of the brain affected in face-blindness is called the fusiform gyrus, which normally deals specifically with facial recognition. This brain region is pictured right, but it’s worth taking a look at an animation to see it properly.

The condition can, and often is, a result of brain trauma (acquired prosopagnosia), although in some cases it’s thought to be a result of certain visual mechanisms failing to develop properly (developmental prosopagnosia).

There is no known cure for face-blindness, although prosopagnosics often learn to ‘bluff’ their way through life, gathering clues about a person in order to make a recognition. They tend to pay close attention to details such as particular facial features, voices, clothing and mannerisms to make up for the fact that they simply can’t decode the visual clues inherent in a human face.

In other words, they use the same strategems that we all try to develop for memory improvement, but whereas most of us use these ‘tricks’ to help us remember facts and data, prosopagnosics use them just to recongnise people on a moment-to-moment basis.

Prosopagnosics encounter social situation ‘awkwardness’

Because the face is such an important memory ‘hook’, people with face-blindness tend to have difficulty with lots of social situations. Imagine, if you will, how hard it might be to keep track of all your friends and relations and all their related items of information if you had endless trouble even putting a face to their names.

Donna and Victoria rarely go out together due to the fact that if they got split up they would have effectively lost each other.

“It happened in a supermarket once,” Victoria recalls,
“and I had to ask them to put out a Tannoy announcement as if she was a lost kid. It was so embarrassing.”

She recalls another embarrassing situation, this time when she was working as a bar manager. She was hurrying to get to the kitchen with an armful of empties, and her way was barred by a mad woman, flustered and hurrying, constantly getting in her way. She lost her temper and ended up shouting at the crazy woman, who continued to angrily bar her way. It took her a good few minutes to realise it was a mirrored door and she was arguing loudly with herself!

Harvard University is currently undertaking research into face-blindness, which, it appears, may be hereditary. It doesn’t just affect sufferers’ perception of faces; everyday objects can also cause total confusion, since many of them can also be unrecognisable. We’re used to thinking of memory impairment and memory loss in terms of forgetting things – this is a case of never having been able to form proper memories in the first place, of faces at least, due to a specific condition.

Next time you’re berating yourself (and your memory) because you can’t recall a name, or a fact, consider how bad it could be. Some people (lots more than I would have guessed) have trouble even remembering the identity of the man in the mirror, let alone a long list of facts or numbers.

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