Andrea has written several posts about faceblindness
— see the listing at the bottom of this page.
Here I am sitting at my computer; it is night, and my reflection is there in the bedroom window. My hair disappears into the inky night, leaving behind a face composed of man-in-the-moon highlights and shadows from the desk lamp. The actual face is a slightly blurry composite because the glass needs cleaning.
Then I have this sinking realisation that aside from the familiar shirt, that face could really belong to any number of people. I had never realised before that I do not actually recognise my own face — rather, I only recognise the fact that that I am looking in a mirror and that the reflection is probably me, which is not the same thing.
I cannot recognise myself. I cannot recognise anyone else, either. I am faceblind.
In the mornings when I wash my face, the individual features always present the same: a familiar-feeling bony nasal bridge, or the surgical scar by the corner of one eye. But those are just individual features, not the gestalt of an entire face, of what I look like as a specific person. Even faces viewed from the left, front, right, upwards, or downwards seem to have no correlation with each other; they are different, and not-quite-unrelated.
Should I be walking through a clothing store and catch my side profile reflected in a mirror, I am invariably surprised that someone is wearing clothes like mine! The doppelgänger feels downright weird for a second, but Oh-it’s-this-again and by giving a finger-wiggle test I confirm that Yes, that reflection is of me.
Photographs of me never look like the individual features I see in the mirror. And no, I do not mean the usual right-left feature reversal that bothers most everyone. Rather, there is this person that lives in photograph-land who other people say looks like me. You know, much the same way that people say your recorded voice sounds like you, despite it sounding different from what you hear in your head. Usually I know which person I am because I remember my clothes and the event. I usually require others’ to identify people in photos, news videos and movies. (When I am the photographer I can distinguish my own family members).
One of those curious, memorable events that later enabled me to realise I am faceblind was when my sister and I were sorting through our mother’s belongings. I handing her a photograph of someone sitting in a tree, “One of your friends?”
She gave me an indecipherable look, “No. That’s you,” and tossed it back.
I examined the details, yet I did not remember the location or clothes, nor were the teen girl’s hair, glasses, or size particularly distinctive. “Are you sure?” I pressed, “I don’t remember that tree or outfit.”
With a sigh, she got up and turned, giving a “my sister is so weird” shake of her head as she left to fetch another box.
OF COURSE, THE BIG PROBLEM
IS IDENTIFYING EVERYONE ELSE.
No, it is NOT just, “Oh, everybody has trouble with names and faces”. What they really mean is that they have trouble remembering the names that go with those faces they are recognizing.
I cannot recognize or remember faces, a neurological condition called Prosopagnosia, or more commonly “faceblindness”.
Once only thought of as the result of injury, we now know is frequently genetic, and affects about 2% of the population. One may be moderately or profoundly impaired. Most faceblind people spend their whole lives trying to compensate, whilst assuming their troubles from being ‘really bad with names and faces’ is a character failing.
I can not recognise anyone. There is no split-second, automatic process where someone “pops out” and you know them.
I use a slower, conscious process of identifying people involves their hairstyle, voice, body shape, gait, posture, typical location, and sometimes clothing.
After time, I can learn to identify some familiar people, but neither consistently nor quickly, and especially not in crowds. Frequently I may not identify someone until I “hear their face”. People say it is odd that I often do not immediately notice the sex of a person. Likewise eye color is unmemorable (unless really unusual, like a guy with that startlingly ice-blue eye color that I find somewhat painful to look at).
People with unusual traits are much easier to cue on and remember, such as the foreign-born and/or physiologically atypical. Problematically, if I run into someone who shares a specific trait I use to identify a person, I may have difficulty sorting out if this is “my” person with the red hair or some other person with the red hair.
There’s a related problem common to the faceblind, of “twinning” two people into one. I “twinned” two school custodians with their identical uniforms and nigh-identical haircuts into the same person — not until several months into the school year did I see both of them together and realised with yet another great cringe of embarrassment that I had probably addressed the second person as the first!
Worst of all are people in uniforms without extremely distinctive features. (Once I tried to watch the war movie Band of Brothers, but gave up after half an hour of constantly bugging others, “Who’s that? Which one is that? Is that the same guy? Now what’s this guy’s name? Is that a different person or is he in different clothes?”)
But frankly, most people are well, not very memorable. Seriously. Side by side, I can (usually) tell two people apart. But the masses of humanity are all a herd of the same species, passing different in the moment like two leaves on a twig, noticed, considered, but unremembered once blown away.
My most everyday difficulties are:
- Identifying people I know but when encountering them someplace unexpected;
- Remembering names (especially common short names);
- Finding people in crowds, such as my own children or grandchildren on the playground, or friends in a line of people disembarking the jetway.
As time progresses and with it the necessary social circles, from dozens to hundreds of people, my difficulties, frustrations and embarrassments became worse and worse.
As a very young child, it wasn’t too problematic because I was around so few people. In early school years I would know my teacher, a peer or two, and the girl that lived a couple doors down the block. Yet I had no clue that those other children in my classes were mostly the same pupils from previous years. Moreover, when pressed upon to do so by my mother, I could not even list the names of my classmates, much less even recall how many were girls or boys!
Back at school, few things inspired terror like being handed a stack of graded assignments with the instruction to hand them out to my classmates. But not knowing who anyone was made team sports in gym class or recess twice as hellish. Should I manage to catch a softball or intercept a basketball, I had no idea who to throw it to. Worse, the other children caught on I was clumsy and oddly clueless, so both teams would be yelling at me, an overwhelming mass of noise, faces, and conflicting directions.
At university all those “generic” coeds swarmed through the college dorm: clean-cut-guys and girls-with-long-hair, all looking virtually the same. Some might share one or more of those giant lecture classes with me, but I had no idea.
Then it was people in large offices, without name plates on their desks. Or staff with ID badges flapping hidden down at their hips. What’s. The. Point. of an ID Badge. If No-one. Can. See it?
For me, people are often mentally sorted and identified by place.
I will see the same pharmacist at the market and recognize them as such. But should they be off work and wearing street clothes rather than a lab coat, or in another location like the library, then they are as good as a complete and utter stranger to me. This is because I use “likelihood sets” as a crutch for identifying people, e.g., I am likely to meet Entomology professors in one hall, Horticulture professors in another, the nurse and doctor at the health center.
When teaching at college I knew the academic ups and down of each student named on my seating charts, yet by Final Exam Day I was still struggling to identify most when they were ‘out of place’ around the room and hallway.
But location could backfire. When introduced to a couple of friends I found myself meeting two large, tall guys with beards, and both of their single-syllable names started with the letter “D”! Moreover, I was introduced to both of them at the same time and place. It took a couple of months to get them sorted, and during that time I lived in a kind of social terror of making some comment that would reveal my utter, inexplicable, foolish confusion.
COPING. OR, NOT.
I did not discover I had faceblindness until I was in my 40’s, and such a relief it was. Well, relief, then frustration, then confusion. Invisible disabilities, especially those that affect social life, are worse when the coping strategies are limited.
So what do I do when I run into someone whom I cannot quickly identify?
This usually happens when they are “out of place”, or else have changed my cueing factor (haircut, facial hair, glasses). So I rely on their mannerisms, gait or posture (tricky, as these take more input time and analysis), or hope that the person will make some kind of comment that provides the clue.
Of late, I have finally given up trying to guess and will just out and ask them. “Sorry, faceblind moment. Who are you?”
Let them find you. A couple of years ago I had to pick up a guest speaker at the airport. Well I did have a photograph of the person from a web site, but such photos are notoriously out of date, especially with regards to not only aging, but also haircuts, glasses, the kind of clothing the person would be wearing at the airport compared to what was being worn in the candid shot, and even the lighting used in the photograph and the background scenery! In my email I simply explained that I have trouble finding people in crowds, and would be holding up a sign with his name on it. Plenty of other people do this in airports. BUT the difficulty for me was the second day, when I was supposed to pick him up at the hotel lobby and because I had met him once before, “should” be able to find him. Fortunately, he had a distinctive set of characteristics and was also good at picking me out in a crowd!
Damn, Crowds. Big restaurant, and my family got seated while I was in the Women’s restroom. Where are they … I have to check every single person in the crowd to compare them to my search image. (Sometimes I run into stupid moments, like, “Not, not, not, — oh, wait a minute, this bench is full of brown people, I can skip all of these bodies –” Duh!)
Remember what they’re wearing. It is easier to re-find someone, because I try to make a conscious effort to remember what they’re wearing, so I can limit the checks to “every human in a blue shirt”. But for my family coming off the jetway, my teenage daughter (who is normally easier to find because she has long hair) had purchased a new coat (a long woollen coat that hid her body shape) and was wearing a scarf tied on her head!
I’m great at identifying things and at seeing patterns — except for human faces.
Sure, I can identify hundreds of plants and insects, but with those, I am only identifying things down to the family, genus or species level. With humans, we have to identify down to the individual level. I can sometimes identify a very-standardized, very-common portrait of say, Abraham Lincoln, but as a pattern, just as one might remember a particular label design. Because I cannot remember people’s faces (at the risk of sounding offensive), they are not as important to me. This has had other, curious effects upon how I perceive things.
My first clue that I was different also came from a design.
So often in my past I had tried to make myself learn something in the manner it was taught, and failed to do so well (or at all) because I do not learn or process information in the same manner that it was either taught, or the way the learning process was proscribed. For example, drawing was often described in art books (and classes) as being a process whereby you create the body and limbs out of a series of ovals, and then smooth out the outline. In other words, one creates the whole from the parts, or integrating a combination of features.
Facial features do not resolve into a unified and distinctive whole. Faceblind people see the same individual features, but it doesn’t form that gestalt. (Severe impairment may mean not easily recognising facial features.) I can neither remember that gestalt nor recognize it in all its different permutations.
Back to that art problem. I cannot draw by connecting different parts. Instead, I start with the silhouette, and then fill in the middle — my visual process is radically different! The first thing I notice about a person is their size or spatial mass, not (I’ve read) as most people do by their sex and their face.
When doing some closet-cleaning I came across my portfolio of projects from Commercial Art classes some years ago. One picture was an assignment:
“Abstraction, select a natural object, create an abstract of that object”, done with pen and ink
I remember thinking about cats, and what qualities of the body shape define them as having “cat-ness”. I tend to perceive things primarily by the mass and outline and by specific traits. So, I picked out those details (tail, limb joints, ears, whiskers) that to me were the representational details, those details that I use to identify a cat.
Most everyone did animals for that abstraction assignment. But the instructor pointed out to everyone that my drawing was unusual. It was the only one showing the animal from the back side, without the eyes. Ever.
Mine was the only picture without a face!
Everyone else put the eyes into their animal illustrations, even if they left out the other facial details in their efforts to simplify the abstraction.
But the facial details are not what I cue in to.
I remember when one of our entomology profs was taking a microphotograph of a very small insect. He had an expensive program that combines the digital microscope images from several focal planes together, so even excruciatingly small insects could be photographed in complete focus. Something he told me was, “Always make sure the eyes are in focus; everyone notices the eyes.” Had he not mentioned that to me, I would not have known that the eyes were important to other people.
Yes, I know, people tell me that I just need to “pay attention” or “I should try harder”. Trust me, I do. I make lots of mental notes, trying to “stamp” a face in my memory. But it’s like trying to magnet something to a tree. Trees aren’t ferrous; magnets won’t stick.
OTHER POSTS DEALING WITH FACEBLINDNESS:
Incurable, endurable — sometimes to deal with things you just gotta have fun: Top Ten Things About Having Faceblindness (Prosopagnosia).
Greg Williams does a weekly cartoon called “Blogjam”, where he illustrates stories from people’s blogs. One week he featured my blog post.
I cannot recognise people from their ID photos. Once I am very familiar with a group of people from having been around them a long time, I can use a sort of mental flow-chart to sort out who’s who, such as in a departmental group photo. Unfortunately, some people mistake “being able to distinguish between knowns within a set” with “being able to recognise between a set of knowns and a set of unknowns”. So photo directories do not help me learn to identify people: Smile!
People who don’t repeat frequently during my lifetime will fade from my ability to identify them: Rare Sightings.
One of the problems the faceblind run into is “twinning”, where we mistake two people for the same person. It’s not that everyone looks identical, but rather that people exist in different “types” of indistinguishable individuals: Typecasting.
Helping the awkward new student seemed like a good idea, so why did it make everything worse? Help was apparently something that is done to you and for you; I was the passive recipient for help. They were strangely disempowering, these activities that were ostensibly for my benefit: Being the Class Project: Reflections Upon False Inclusion.
Here’s a word we faceblind need: Tartle TAR-tl (Scottish) v. To hesitate or be slow when recognising a person or thing. Those of us who are faceblind tartle a LOT. New tools you didn’t even know you needed.
Making connections about who’s who required a lot of careful analysis, drawing connections and ruling out confounds between dissimilar data sets, as though I am playing a particularly difficult level of Sudoku involving personnel instead of numbers. It makes my own participation so much easier if someone can mention to me who people are and how I would know them, and update me as to what is going on in their lives that will likely be relevant to current events: Social Captioning.
The faceblind person prepares for a job interview: Welcome to the First Ring of Hell.
Who cares about the Beautiful People out there if we can’t tell them apart? The faceblind person may prefer the faces of people who are distinctive, because they can be more easily recognized, and thus are associated with less stress of identification, and because they increase the likelihood of repeated identification. As you might expect, faceblindness plays hell with dating. No Eye for Beauty.