Yes, Virginia, Face Blindness Is Real

And it leads to real embarrassment in social and business settings.

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And you wonder why I don’t recognize you!

“I really hope I can recognize my wife when I see her on the pier.” That was what was going through my head when my ship, the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), was returning off deployment in 1998. My wife and I had been married for about six years and had two sons, so one would think I’d know her anywhere, right? But I really wasn’t sure.

Thing is, I thought this was normal. I had no reason to think that the same thoughts weren’t going through the minds of the rest of the crew. I had no clue that there was such a thing as face blindness. What’s more, I didn’t know how lucky I was to have a career where everyone wore name tags, because it turns out I’m pretty good with remembering names and numbers, probably because those who are unaware of their condition of face blindness — like those with dyslexia — tend to adapt to their condition. So what I did when I descended the ship’s ladder to the pier and looked for my wife and sons, I looked more to see who was waving at me and made the mental match.

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That’s not me, but you get the idea (source)

So I was lucky that day, for most of us can well imagine what would happen if one returns off military deployment and doesn’t recognize one’s own spouse. Even the most understanding wife or husband would be deeply hurt.

That was far from the only instance, for there were many times when I’d see people from Church that I’d known for a decade or more whose faces I remembered vaguely at best. It became something of a standing joke among friends and family. One time a fellow Church member told me that someone (whom I would normally have been expected to recognize immediately) was someone else, and his little prank resulted in some hard feelings. In the big picture of life that’s certainly no big deal, but I include it only to show how face blindness can lead to awkward situations.

Time passed, and one day I saw the news that Brad Pitt had face blindness. That was my Eureka! moment, replete with an old-style incandescent light bulb flashing over my head. The light bulb wasn’t the news that Brad Pitt has face blindness, but the fact that face blindness itself was real.

The official medical term is prosopagnosia, a mash-up of the Classical Greek words for “face” and “non-knowledge”, and the first suspected instances of it were identified nearly two hundred years ago. There are two main types: congenital and acquired. Congenital face blindness refers to those who from birth never fully developed an ability to recognize faces, whereas acquired face blindness can occur from a whole host of causes, from intracranial bleeding to Alzheimer’s disease to carbon monoxide poisoning. Face blindness also correlates somewhat with autism, but only to the point that the presence of one may indicate the presence of the other. That’s about as far into the medical weeds as we need to go.

I’ve since learned my condition is quite mild, for many people with face blindness cannot recognize parents or spouses at all, or even recognize themselves in a photograph. I can recognize most people if I’ve seen them relatively recently a dozen or more times and if their faces are (to my perception) truly distinctive. That’s why I have no problem recognizing many of my family members now, though even a couple months ago I didn’t recognize my niece who had lived with us only two years before.

What’s most frustrating is that when I have to explain this condition to others (usually after having failed to recognize them as I should), they almost always respond with some form of “Oh, I understand, because I have a problem remembering names.” That response is a non-starter, because it’s not at all the same. In fact, the inability to quickly remember names is pretty much normal.

Lastly — and this is the main point of this article — if you see someone that you recognize, try not to take offense if that person doesn’t recognize you. It might not be because they forgot you or wanted to ignore you, but because their brains were simply unable to process the physical image of your face in such a way that it would allow them to recognize you.

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