It’s estimated that 1 in 50 of us have some form of face blindness, yet it’s rarely talked about. Why every time I’m in public is like a very uncomfortable game of “Guess Who?”
I saw him come into the room, and I lit up, thankful to see someone familiar. I was about to go on stage and, so far, this audience was a sea of anonymity.
“Oh my god, hi! How are you?”
He smiled and hugged me, then asked how I was.
“I’m great! Hey, where’s Kate?”
The look on his face made my blood run cold and my face heat up. I knew instantly that I had made a mistake.
“Kate? Who’s…wait, Kate is Josh’s girlfriend. Do you think I’m Josh?”
I blinked hard and swallowed, unsure of how to proceed. After 40 years, I’m still unsure of how to proceed. He turned to the man standing next to him and laughed.
“She thought I was Josh!”
I slunk away, face on fire, as they seemed to find no end to the entertainment I had provided. I found out later that the man who was Not Josh was someone I’d met ten times before. This, I thought, THIS is why I hate to leave the house.
I have prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness.” Basically what this means is that I see faces clearly, but my brain processes them differently. Though there are several forms of prosopagnosia, my particular challenge is with remembering a face when I encounter it again. When I see a face, even if it’s attached to someone I’m very fond of, it’s like seeing it for the first time, every time, at least for a long while.
But, I’m lucky. More severe cases of prosopagnosia render the sufferer unable to recognize their loved ones and many can’t even identify their own faces in pictures or mirrors.
It used to be thought that prosopagnosia was only caused by stroke, traumatic brain injury, or certain neurodegenerative diseases, but now it’s known the disorder can also be congenital. And the congenital sort likely runs in families. As soon as I mentioned this whole thing on Facebook, my brother piped up “Me, too!” For a girl who’s always suspected that maybe, just maybe, she might belong to the milkman, there’s something a tiny bit comforting about this. So, considering I’ve never had any significant head injuries and am neurodegenerative disease free, it’s likely I came by my face blindness the old fashioned way: genetic mutation!
Socially, prosopagnosia is a disaster. You likely never think about such a thing, but trust me when I say you’d be surprised how frequently you use a person’s face to identify them in everyday life. In general, people have the very reasonable expectation of being remembered–and it’s not that I don’t remember them, it’s that I don’t recognize them. Once I’m sure of who they are, I usually recall past encounters to the smallest detail. Memory? Memory is not my problem. But, it’s very likely that if I’ve seemed to recognize you, I’ve deduced who you are rather than figured it out based on the dinner plate sized clue on the front of your head.
To avoid unnecessary gaffes, I scan facebook invites for the few events I do decide to attend–studying the guest list beforehand, desperate to seem cool, collected, and connected when I enter the room. I ask friends, ahead of outings, who we might see there and pose leading questions about how I might know them. I frequent the same stores and restaurants, appearing to be a “regular” like Norm from Cheers, when the truth is it’s just easier for me to solve the puzzle of who someone is in a familiar context.
While a job like mine seems perfect for someone with prosopagnosia, due to the fact that I encounter hundreds of people each day, I’ve been at the store where I work for just over five years–meaning customers assume I know them by now. I’ll ring up someone’s groceries and they’ll ask “Hey, how are your kids?” or “How’s the running going?” I’ll answer and, as they walk away, say to the courtesy clerk “I’ve never seen that person before in my life.” It never fails to amuse my coworkers to point out that the person to whom I’m referring has been coming in three times a week for years or, better yet, was in earlier the same day.
Like many people with prosopagnosia, I’ve learned to cope. I frantically take mental notes when meeting (and re-meeting) people: where we are, what they’re wearing, who they are with, and how they sound. Meeting people at night or in some place noisy is always a challenge because I need to pick up as many cues as possible, and cutting down on my visual or auditory abilities is the kiss of death. Stick me in a crowded bar and I’m completely out of the game.
In the case of Not Josh, he shared cues with Josh, including a similar style of dress, nearly identical facial hair, and a voice with a tone very much like Josh’s. Most importantly, I ran into Not Josh in the very same spot where I’d first met Josh. All of that added up to the Joshiness of Not Josh and resulted in my confusion and extreme embarrassment.
By the way, I’m not not the only one with this funky face thing. In fact, now that the internet has made the world much smaller and finding people who share similar quirky brain janks a whole lot easier, research suggests that as many as 1 in 50 people have some form of prosopagnosia–including Jane Goodall and Chuck Close.1
But, believe it or not, prosopagnosia hasn’t been all party pooping and hurt feelings for me. Truth is, unlike a lot of people you run into, when we meet I’m actually paying attention. Close attention. A lot of it. Because I have to. You want someone to be 100% into a conversation with you? I’m your girl–right after I tell myself five times that Kelly’s eyes are kelly green, she has blonde hair and uses a good conditioner, she’s got the tiniest bit of a whine mixed with a New England accent, she has a cute baby girl who has dark black hair, and she’s a customer in my store.
A close friend once quipped that I am “best friends with the world,” and it’s true. Another thing that I’ve gained from the challenge of face blindness is that everyone I run into is greeted warmly and sincerely. It’s my way of being on the safe side, at least for the first few seconds until I either pick up some cues or don’t. Luckily, even strangers love to be greeted warmly and frequently respond like friends, leaving me, once again to gather cues should we ever meet again.
So, I’m really good (or in the case of Not Josh, somewhat good) at the cue thing. And I’ve dyed my hair pink, making me instantly recognizable to others, therefore triggering their “oh hey I know her” face–a super helpful hint to the status of our relationship. Also, when I do make a mistake, I’ve started to give myself a break and explain the situation to those I’ve offended. Plus, I’ve learned to laugh. Because, seriously, what’s funnier than nodding politely, as you would to a stranger, at your boyfriend when he comes into the room and then being surprised when he wraps you up in a bear hug?
Like The Doors song says “People are strange, when you’re a stranger”. Prosopagnosia has the potential to turn everyone I encounter into a someone I don’t know, which can be frightening and isolating. But my choice is to behave as if no one’s a stranger to me, and it’s sort of a wonderful way to live. Just remind me of that the next time we meet. Because I won’t remember.
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- His prosopagnosia lead him to study and paint faces, including his portrait work that used a giant grid so those faces could be painted one square at a time. Brilliant! ↩