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Why Am I So Bad With Names? and Other Questions of the Prosopagnosic

I recently discovered I am face blind and would like to spread awareness about what it is and how it affects those who live with it.

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Who Is That?

Imagine passing by a stranger at the grocery store who starts waving and smiling at you and walking toward you. They seem to recognize you but you have no idea who they are until you hear their voice . . . then realize it's your coworker!

Imagine watching a movie and getting all the characters mixed up because you keep getting their faces confused.

Imagine seeing an old picture of yourself and wondering who it is for a minute before you recognize the event and realize it's you.

Imagine a coworker asking you why you walked right past them earlier and "ignored" them, even though you have no recollection of seeing them at all.

Imagine being terrible at remembering anyone's name because when you look at them, you just can't seem to recall the information without thinking especially hard about it.

These examples are merely a window into the daily life of someone with face blindness (prosopagnosia)! If you find yourself in situations like these, are feeling guilty for not remembering information about people you know, or are just plain curious to learn more, then read on!

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What Is Prosopagnosia?

So what exactly is face blindness? In short, it is a neurological disorder that impairs the ability to recognize faces. It can be caused by severe brain damage, though in cases like mine it is caused by developmental factors such as genetics. Most people have never heard of it but surprisingly, it is estimated that 1 in 50 people have it!

In more detail, there is a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus which allows people to recognize faces as a whole and store them to memory. So when you think of the face of your closest friend or your coworker, the fusiform region helps conjure up an image of them.

In prosopagnosics, this portion of the brain is either damaged or underdeveloped. As a result, facial information is not stored as a whole but rather in a similar way to objects; less detail is stored in the brain about a face. This can also make it more difficult to determine how someone is feeling by their facial expression, since less facial information is being processed. However, it does not influence intelligence level or emotional ability.

From my personal experience, I can remember individual features of a face like the shape of someone's lips or their jaw line, but I cannot visualize a whole face altogether (not even my own). In more severe cases, a person is unable to see anything at all (and might not even recognize their own family). Regardless of the different types, what is common in every case is that faces are not automatically processed as a whole.

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How Could I Not Realize?

I just found out about my prosopagnosia a few months ago. You may be asking, "How is it possible to go so long without knowing you have such a disruptive disorder?" This is a great question, and it essentially comes down to the fact that we only have one brain to see our individual perspectives through. For all we know, the color green could look completely different through someone else's eyes. But how could we know for sure? In the same way, I don't know any other different way to process information in my head. It has always been this way, so it is my normal.

On another note, it becomes very easy to tell ourselves stories when things don't make sense because that is how the brain works! So any time I forgot who someone was when it should be obvious, I blamed myself for being inattentive or forgetful. When I confused the plots of movies I thought I just wasn't clever enough to understand what was going on; I had no idea my confusion was due to mixing up the characters.

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Why Am I So Bad With Names?

This is one of the most common questions asked by people with prosopagnosia (face blindness), and for good reason. In a non-prosopagnosic person, they see their coworker Halle and their brain automatically recalls a plethora of information about them. They remember Halle's name, the conversation they had with her last week, the food drive she is coordinating, where they know her from, and any other relevant info.

In a prosopagnosic, they see Halle and none of this information is recalled automatically. Everything is "manual," including their name. This is because the typical brain works by associating all this information about Halle with the information about her face. However, a prosopagnosic has limited (or no) information stored about Halle, or any other face for that matter. Thus, there is no face info to mentally attach the personal info to which makes it more difficult to recall things like their name!

So how can a prosopagnosic survive in such a social world? Well, the brain is very clever at finding alternate methods to arrive at the same conclusions as a non-prosopagnosic. In my personal experience, when I see the face of someone I know I have to actively recall information about them by thinking back through the past in order to recognize them. Hearing their voice, seeing their consistent style, glasses, or hairstyle can all help me do this. I memorize distinct features like a large nose, a round face, small eyes, the color of their skin, their demeanor or walk, their scent, and the context I usually see them in (for example, coworkers in the office).

Of course, this can be problematic when a friend changes their hair or style, when I see someone unexpectedly out of context (a coworker at the store), or if I meet many people all at once and don't have time to memorize their features. I used to think I was really bad with names, but it turns out I'm just really bad at faces!

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Is It All Bad?

Absolutely not! I do think these types of neurological disorders exist in our genetics for a purpose; otherwise they would not be so common. Genetic diversity and variety is necessary for the survival of the human population and I don't think face blindness is an exception to this.

In my own personal experiences, I am above average at problem solving by thinking actively and "manually". I don't think this is a coincidence! It is a skill I am constantly practicing because every time I see someone I know unexpectedly, I have to become an investigator to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to figure out who they are. It takes more brain power to do all that rather than the brain just automatically giving you the answers all at once. So in my case, the positive of my brain working harder is that I can apply my problem solving skills to every other area of my life.

Neurological lemons can be squeezed, too!

Neurological lemons can be squeezed, too!

Where Can I Learn More?

There is a fantastic episode on the podcast Speaking of Psychology (by APA) which interviews a Harvard prosopagnosia researcher and a woman with prosopagnosia. I highly recommend giving it a listen if you want more information (or if you think you may be prosopagnosic).

Faceblind.org is another great resource which is mentioned in the podcast, and if you think you may be prosopagnosic you can contact them by answering questions about your facial experiences.

This type of research is still fairly new, so there is not an overabundance of scientific research about it. However, there are many voices online of prosopagnosic people who share their personal experiences. I encourage you to do your own research if you are fascinated by prosopagnosia or know someone who may have it.

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Bonus Personal Experiences

  • For years I didn't realize that Helen Hunt (her younger self), Leelee Sobieski, and Blake Lively were all different people. I watched an entire movie convinced the main character was Blake until I looked it up and realized it was Leelee!
  • I work in a very large building, and often pass by people in the halls who wave or say hello and I smile and wave but have no idea who they are. I've often convinced myself that they think I'm someone else! To make things more confusing, people actually do confuse me with others frequently. Maybe those are other prosopagnosics . . .
  • When I was younger I once had an hour long conversation with someone, who walked up to me the next morning and I had no idea who they were except for vaguely recognizing their voice. They walked away and I was eventually able to piece it together, but I wasn't entirely sure she was the same person.
  • I was at a family function a few years ago where I met a thin middle-aged woman who I knew I had seen before but assumed she was a distant relative. After an hour or so, someone addressed her by her name and I realized she was my first cousin...she had lost a lot of weight!

These are just a handful of moments I remember (out of thousands, I'm sure). What a relief to understand why they all happened now that I know about prospagnosia! Face blindness research is becoming more prevalent, but there are still many people who have no idea what it is, and many who don't know they have it. Do you know anyone you can share this article with to spread awareness? Please do! And if you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to share them below in the comments.

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© 2021 Rebecca Swafford

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