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A Brief Introduction

Welcome! I had a little intro post below, but it wasn't exactly... explanatory. I suppose it would be helpful if I talked a bit about what face-blindness is, huh? :) Here's what I've experienced with it.

I can see faces. There's no problem with my vision. (Well, there is, but it's corrected with glasses and not related to this issue.) What I can't do is recognize a face, or distinguish faces, until I've had repeated, prolonged exposure to the face. Like with many things, there are degrees of face-blindness. At one end you find people with face-blindness so severe that they cannot recognize their immediate family, spouse, or close friends. I have no problem identifying those people in my life, because I do have the ability to eventually learn a face. I'm sort of in the middle of the face-blindness scale, I suppose.

A couple examples might help illustrate how well I do (or don't) remember faces.

When I was in college, there was a semester when I had a three-hour lab class on Wednesdays and a six-hour lecture class on Fridays. The semester began and I went to my Wednesday class, and later my Friday class. Then Wednesday, Friday, and so on. It wasn't until just over two weeks into this schedule, after having sat through nine hours of the lab class and twelve hours of the lecture class, that I realized the woman teaching the lecture class was sitting next to me in the lab class! It took almost twenty hours of exposure to her face for me to finally put the two together. And the context wasn't even very different between the two scenarios. I was still seeing her on-campus at the college. It wasn't like I was failing to recognize my teacher at the grocery store or something.

Another more recent example is from work. My boss retired and a new boss was hired in his place. I saw him for hours nearly every workday. One day, two months after he started working in our office, he shaved his mustache. That was it. No new hair-do. No sudden addition of glasses. Just shaved his rather unassuming mustache. When I came in to work that morning, I saw a coworker chatting with a man at the far end of the room, near my desk. As I approached, I wondered, "Who's that talking to my coworker? I guess we have a visitor today." It wasn't until the "visitor" waved at me and said good morning that I realized it was simply my boss, sans mustache. Even after working with him for two months, I hadn't yet learned his face well enough to recognize him without the mustache.

From what's understood of face-blindness, there are two varieties. One is brought about by head trauma and the other is developmental. The developmental version is present at birth. It also seems to be inherited. Mine is developmental, though I don't know who I inherited it from. No one else in my family seems to have it. Then again, it wasn't until a couple years ago that I realized I had it. I thought I was just "bad at faces." The coping mechanisms I had automatically learned to deal with social situations, I assumed everyone was using. It wasn't until I learned about prosopagnosia, face-blindness, online that I realized I was different. It was quite the relief to realize that there was an explanation for my troubles other than "Heather doesn't pay enough attention." It was nice to know that my failure to recognize a person wasn't my fault, because I had always assumed that it was.

What exactly is going on in my brain that's different than what's going on in an average person's brain? I don't know. One theory I read, which makes sense to me, is that while an average person can use the face-recognition portion of their brain to identify people, a face-blind person must rely upon the object-recognition portion. Since the difference between one face and another is subtle, forcing the object-recognition portion to distinguish between faces is a losing battle. It's simply not meant to perform that task.

There also seems to be a tie between face-blindness and a lack of a sense of direction. I don't understand the physiology behind that connection at all, but I do know it's true for me. I have absolutely no sense of direction. I lived in my parents' house for twenty years and I cannot draw you a floor plan of that house. If I wanted to run two errands in a row, back before I had my GPS receiver, I'd have to run the first errand, return home, and then venture out for the second. This was because I had the paths from my house to the various stores memorized, but because they were learned by rote, and without any understanding of how the two sites related to each other in space, I couldn't deviate from the memorized directions and add a detour into the trip. When people give me detailed directions how to get somewhere, if I'm expected to return after I get there, I have to ask them for directions back. I lack the ability to reverse directions. This seems particularly difficult for people to understand, so I get the, "Just... reverse them!" response a lot, as if I'm trying to be smart with them. Sorry. Can't reverse them!

So that's it in a nut-shell. I don't have it as bad as some, but it is present. It makes for some social awkwardness at times. It sometimes requires a bit of acting (lying?) on my part to pretend that I have a clue who is talking to me. It has led to some embarrassing moments when I fail to recognize someone, or I mis-identify someone. But overall, while it impacts my life, it certainly doesn't make it particularly difficult. It just makes it interesting.

Thanks for dropping by. I'll be updating more later on, including links to other face-blindness sites and a bit about how I do tell one person from another since I can't rely on faces.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 29th, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)
i'm absolutely fascinated--and now wondering if i don't possibly have some of this as well. my utter lack of sense of direction has resulted in some funny family 'legends'--and one near-tragic one. i've literally become terribly lost driving from church to my home.

and i've always used the excuse "i'm bad with faces." for example, almost four months into the school year, i'm only now beginning to consistently recognize my son's teacher.

and--if i have the condition--mine would be due to head trauma, or brain trauma, to be more precise, as i suffer from cerebral palsy due to a stroke at birth. the more i think about it, the more possible, even logical, it seems to be. thanks for sharing!
Nov. 30th, 2007 02:06 am (UTC)
Wow, welcome to the prosopagnosics' club! Sounds like you may very well have it. There's no good diagnostic test for it. Some tests involve identifying celebrities, for instance. (I would be such a complete failure at that, unless they wanted me to ID RSL and Hugh, and even then it might be dicey!) I've tried a couple times to get into prosopagnosia studies, but haven't yet been successful. They're few and far between. I'd like to get "officially" diagnosed at some point, because I think the process itself of getting that diagnosis might be interesting, but it's not anything I've pursued too seriously yet.

But from what you're saying, I wouldn't be surprised if you did have it. And the brain trauma is a perfect fit. (Can't you just hear House saying, "It FITS. It's perfect!"? Where's the prosopagnosia episode already? lol) Most of the studies I've read have been about prosopagnosia brought about by brain damage. In fact, it wasn't until fairly recently that the congenital version was even discovered.

Why did it take so long for scientists to realize there's a congenital version? I'm not sure. I don't know if the non-congenital version is simply more prevalent, or if it just gets more attention because it's such a dramatic before-and-after event, or if people who have suffered brain injury are more likely to realize something is amiss because they're looking for lingering effects of the trauma, whereas people like me don't have a "before" to compare anything to. Regardless of WHY, it seems most studies tend to focus on the non-congenital version.

(Technically, it sounds like you might be a third category. Congenital brain damage, since the trauma that potentially created the face-blindness occurred so close to your birth. You don't have a "before" to compare it to either, so it's no wonder you didn't realize you might be face-blind.)

Now that there's some awareness of the congenital version, scientists are trying to make estimates as to how prevalent face-blindness (of both kinds) is. The estimate I read the most is that up to 2% of the population is face-blind to some extent. That seems really high to me, but then again, how many people must there be out there who have no idea they're face-blind? The condition is practically unheard of, and unless it's severe, it's not anything a person would think to mention to a doctor. "I'm bad at remembering faces" just doesn't come up during a physical exam too often!

Well, I hope you find the rest of the entries interesting, and I hope they shed some light on your own experiences. I know when I first started reading about face-blindness, I had a whole series of "ah-hah!" moments as I found out things I did weren't typical of average people, but were very typical of prosopagnosics. Maybe you'll see some of yourself in these stories.

Thanks so much for reading and for friending this blog. :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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