Illustration by Adam Q

Mindful Life: Discovering that I was face-blind

Prosopagnosia—a difficulty in facial recognition—affects up to 2 per cent of people to some degree
July 21, 2022

Earlier this week I went to a conference. It was a big and exciting event, one of the first to take place face-to-face since the pandemic. Yet I found it extraordinarily tiring and stressful, largely due to the difficulty I had recognising people without the little name that used to float next to their face on Zoom.

Face blindness—or, to give it its proper name, prosopagnosia—is a difficulty in facial recognition that may afflict up to 2 per cent of people to some degree. It can start in childhood or be caused by later damage such as a stroke to a particular area of the brain. Like many, I had no idea that my problem had a name until recently; in fact, my incompetence both at recognising people and following films had merely been a longstanding source of irritation to my family. Some brief research online revealed that there is a link between face blindness and navigation skills, which fits with my experience of having an embarrassingly poor sense of direction. 

According to the latest studies there are multiple potential causes of face blindness, including poor vision during important developmental periods, a familial genetic link or brain injury before birth. I wonder if mine relates to my severe short-sightedness from an early age. When I was young, children were discouraged from wearing -glasses except when they really needed to, so the playground—and my friends—were always in soft focus. My parents thought this might improve my vision, along with endless eye exercises, which proved fruitless. I did recognise people, but it was often from their hair, clothes or gait—and especially their voices. Very occasionally I misrecognised my parents, which was disconcerting, but mostly I got along all right. 

By the time I got contact lenses in my early teens it was probably too late. I’d largely stopped trying to recognise faces, and that lack of practice quite possibly inhibited the development of the relevant bit of my brain. I like looking at people, but I can’t visualise a face once I’ve looked away—and I certainly couldn’t draw one.

This can cause significant problems at work, but I’ve adapted. I can cope with colleagues, since I’m familiar with their other physical characteristics, but it can be difficult with people I don’t see regularly. If I’m concentrating, I will learn a defining feature like hair colour or glasses, and that helps. With patients, I don’t want to upset them by not recognising them, so I usually ask one of the nurses to point them out—if anything the latter are slightly amused by my deficiencies.

Socially, it’s more challenging. I often avoid events unless I’m sure exactly where I’m going, and that I will be with someone I know. I’m always anxious when I have to go out by myself to meet others, particularly when I don’t know the group or the venue well.

People will no doubt say, “But surely you recognise your family!” And yes, on the whole, I do. I have three daughters of similar height who resemble each other, and I know whose piercings are situated where and how they walk. But sometimes they change their hair colour or steal each other’s clothes, then enter a room, and I temporise by calling them “daughter” until their voice gives them away. My husband is bald and tall—I spot him floating above the crowds, and his clothes have a limited range which makes my life easier.

Oliver Sacks, the author and neurologist, famously spoke about his own face blindness. He apparently didn’t realise he had it until middle age—and always seemed to be wearing thick glasses. He also had difficulty finding his way around, and learning of his story was a Eureka moment for me. 

Understanding face blindness has actually reduced my anxiety about not recognising people. I would describe my case as mild to moderate—and it’s amazing what the human brain can adapt to. But I did rather enjoy Zoom!