Face Blindness

Mar 21, 2012 | 4 comments

A Familiar Face?

     I’ve known for some time that I have difficulty recognizing people.  “Tell me if there’s anyone here I should know,” are words I almost always whisper to Nyel when we enter a room full of people.  When I was teaching, I taped large name tags to every desk knowing that it would take a week or two before I could associate names and faces.
     Until Sunday night, I just assumed it was me – a quirky part of my personality or an area in which I was less intelligent than other people.  More recently, I’ve blamed my advancing years.  Upon being reminded by someone that we’ve met before, I’ve taken to saying, rather vaguely, “Your face is familiar but…”  However, the truth is, the face usually has no familiarity at all.  It may take four or five meetings before I’ve ‘learned’ who a person is.
     Then, last Sunday on “60 Minutes,” there was a wonderful segment about face blindness.  I learned that there are numbers of people in the world who never ever recognize a face – often not even their own face in a mirror. All I could think was, “Thank goodness it hasn’t come to that for me!”
     Face blindness was first recognized as a medical issue among injured soldiers after World War II.  Gradually, the medical profession has found that there is a particular part of the brain that deals specifically with face recognition – not with the recognition of other things like cups or trees or hands.  Just faces.  And they have learned that, although injury to that part of the brain can cause “face blindness,” some people with apparently ‘normal brains’ have face blindness, too.
     A number of face-blind people were interviewed on the show.  They talked about ways they compensate (like my big name tags) and the fact that they are often thought to be arrogant for snubbing people.  Some said that they smile and are pleasant to everyone; some said that they tend to avoid people and lead rather solitary lives.
     The program dealt mostly with extremes – the doctor who could not recognize a patient when she turned and looked out the window and then looked back at him.  “I rely on patient charts,” he said.  And then there were the ‘super-recognizers’ – the people who remember the face of a waiter or a train conductor they saw only once twenty years previously!  Wow!  But there was no mention of people who might be partially face blind.
     So… yesterday I went online and took a face blindness test.  I ended up in the thirty percent range for face recognition.  I was pleasantly surprised that I scored as well as I did.  I do think I’d have done better if the faces were more from my era – maybe June Allyson instead of Madonna or Winston Churchill instead of Tony Blair.  Oh, and did I mention that everything but the face is blocked out of the picture – no hair, no ears.  Just two eyes with eyebrows, a nose, a mouth and a chin.  Not even a wisp of curl or a receding hairline to help you out.
     Well, as Bogart famously said, “Here’s looking at you, kid!”  But if I don’t immediately say “hello,” you’ll know why!


  1. Miki

    Well, Sydney, your 30% face recognizer was the only one who noticed that I had my itty-bitty teeth capped. No one else even said a word. So give yourself extra points for being a detail person! 🙂

    • sydney

      Actually, Miki, that “60 Minutes” program pointed out that face blind people depend upon those little details for identifying people! Who knew! But I really have a mild version of the ailment — it just takes me a long time but once I “get” a face I don’t lose it. I know you even without your gorgeous smile!

  2. Mark

    My dad always loved to say when he’d see some after an absence, “I remember the name but I’m having trouble with your face.”

    • sydney

      That’s a phrase I’ve relied upon over the years, too, Mark. But nowadays, I’m having trouble with the names as well!


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