I had never heard of prosopagnosia, or face blindness, until about 10 years ago. It was being discussed on a chat show on TV and as the discussion progressed, all sorts of little things fell into place for me and I realised that I wasn’t just inattentive or not very observant.
People who suffer from prosopagnosia find it hard to recognise people’s faces. There are varying degrees of face blindness; some people even have difficulty recognising their own loved ones. I once saw a photo of my son, dressed as a sheep, in his school nativity play. he was with a few other children all dressed the same, and his costume covered his hair so all I could see was his face. It took me a while to figure out which sheep was my son, and even when I had identified him, I couldn’t be 100% sure that it was him. As you can imagine, prosopagnosia can cause a lot of problems in social situations and at work, and can lead to embarrassment and distress.
If you can say yes to most of the following signs, you may have prosopagnosia.
- You find it hard to recognise people that you know, especially if you see them in a different context.
- You find it difficult to follow films or TV shows because you get the characters muddled up.
- You have a poor sense of direction.
- If you are talking to someone and they leave the room and then come in again, you are unsure whether it is the same person or not.
I have always found it quite hard to make friends. I have to know someone for quite a long time before I become friends with them. When I heard about prosopagnosia I thought this might explain why. When my children were little I used to go to toddler groups. All the other mums seemed to get to know each other very quickly but I struggled. If a mum walked into the room, I couldn’t be sure if I had met her before or not. I might have a very friendly conversation with someone, but I would completely forget who I had been talking to by the next week, or sometimes by the next moment. One time, I was talking to a mum at a toddler group, and then later I tried to continue the conversation. It was only when she looked at me blankly that I noticed the woman I had talked to earlier over the other side of the hall. This was a completely different person.
I always have to concentrate very hard when watching a film or I get completely lost. This is because if there are two similar looking characters in the film, I won’t be able to tell which is which. They don’t even have to be very similar – two men with short dark hair look the same to me if I don’t know them well.
Imagine you saw a black cat in the street, and then later you saw another black cat. You probably wouldn’t be sure if they were two different cats or if you had seen the same cat twice. If you saw both cats together and you looked closely you would probably notice that one had bigger ears, or the other one had a wider face, but if you saw them individually they would just look like any other black cat. For me it’s the same with humans. Two women in their twenties with long blond hair look the same to me. If I saw them together I would notice differences between them, but then if I met one of them later I wouldn’t know which one it was.
This can cause problems in my job. I teach in a college, and most of my students are studying sport. I might have a class of fifteen footballers who I only meet once or twice a week. They are all the same age, they all have similar hair cuts and builds, and they are almost all white males. They usually wear identical college polo shirts. Consequently it takes me a long time to remember their names and I am constantly calling them by the wrong name. Before I found out about face blindness, I used to feel very bad about this and I wondered how other teachers could learn their students’ names with relative ease while it was so difficult for me.
People who suffer from prosopagnosia often have a very poor sense of direction, although it is not understood why. I am very good at reading maps but if I am without a map or a sat nav it is almost impossible for me to find my way around an unfamiliar place. If I turn a corner I have no idea which direction I am facing. If I walk into a room in a building, especially if the route involves stairs or corridors, I will find it very difficult to make my way back to the entrance of the building again.
Face blindness can run in families and I do wonder whether my eight-year-old may have inherited it from me. Children often wave to him in the street and call out his name, but when I ask him who they are he can never tell me their names. His teacher last year told me that she had noticed that he didn’t know the names of the other children in his class, even towards the end of the summer term. If she asked him to sit next to a certain child he wouldn’t know where to sit. This seems to be making it difficult for him to form friendships, just as it does for me, and I worry about how he will manage in later life.
Recent research suggests that as many as 2 – 2.5% of the population may have this condition, and many are unaware, as I was, believing themselves to be forgetful or absent-minded.
To find out more about face blindness, visit the prosopagnosia research website.