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The People Who Can't Recognize Faces

Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognize faces. So what happens if you don't remember what your boyfriend even looks like?

by Stevie Martin
Jan 28 2016, 1:55pm

Photo by Alexey Kuzma via Stocksy

My friend occasionally doesn't remember people she just spoke to because "they're not wearing a hat anymore." It's a joke to mask something most of us can relate to: the social embarrassment of having someone yell, "Oh hey!" when you have no idea who they actually are.

According to recent statistics, up to 1 in 50 people neurologically can't recognise the faces of those around them. It's called prosopagnosia, and while relatively little is known about it, there's been a recent renewed interest among researchers and it's suspected that around 1.5 million people have it in the UK alone. Like how those with color blindness may not be able to differentiate between red and green, people with prosopagnosia can't piece together faces, and they can go years without realizing they even have a problem.

"I just felt really stupid all the time," says Tess, a playwright in her 30s in London who went through her whole 20s with no idea there was anything neurologically different about her. "I put it down to the fact that, at uni, I was really busy with my law degree and I was a bit of a whirlwind." It wasn't til her brother, who also had trouble recognising faces, read about prosopagnosia that she realised this might be an actual "thing."

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Same with Caroline, 21, who lives in Michigan and works in a grocery store. She found school especially difficult: "I had a lot of trouble knowing who everybody was, so when the teachers asked me to pass back papers I kept having to ask, 'Who is this?' even at the end of the year," she says. "I also had trouble making friends, partly because I couldn't tell who people were, so I tended to pick out interesting looking people. Other kids made fun of me for not knowing who they were."

Tess also remembers being a kid and not remembering who her mother was when she came to pick her up from school. And, when she was alone in a room, being frightened by a strange face looking back at her from the mirror—only to figure out it was her.

People with prosopagnosia rely on other social clues to figure out who people are. Photo by Melanie Kintz via Stocksy

Caroline, who is a goth, has always dressed differently just so she can confidently recognise who she is in pictures and reflections. A 25 year old I spoke to in the UK, Zoe, rarely remembered her own boyfriend: "Before we both knew it was prosopagnosia, sometimes I'd bump into him in the street—or walk right by him," she says. "He'd say a big happy hello and I'd stare back like, 'Do I know you?!'" Ironically, she's worked as a successful caricature artist for eight years—and while she can replicate faces on the page, she doesn't recognize the people she's been sat staring at for 45 minutes when they come back and ask to buy their own face.

Sounds a bit more severe than my occasional forgetful lapses and my friend's apparent issue with hats and her confident assertion that most people look "a bit like Channing Tatum."

"There are two forms of prosopagnosia," says Dr. Ashok Jansari, one of the leading researchers in the UK, and a cognitive neuroscientist at Goldsmiths University of London. "One is acquired, where a person was able to recognize faces, and then due to brain trauma, can no longer. The other is developmental, from birth." So far, researchers haven't been able to find anything abnormal in the brain in the developmental cases, and Dr. Jansari puts it down to a sort of misinformation between the light hitting the retina, and the messages transferring to the brain.

When I concentrate on features they start slipping away, I can't pull together what they look like.

"When light hits your retina at the back of your eyeballs, it's millions of nerve cells that individually 'see' one dot of light, and don't communicate with each other. They all transmit this to the back of your head, the cortex, and at that point your brain puts together all the individual dots," Dr. Jansari explains. "Looking at edges, finding shapes—that's perception. Once you've got a shape, the next stage is recognizing what that shape is and working out if you've seen it before. Like if you go into an unfamiliar restaurant and see a chair you've never seen before, you know it's a chair because it bears resemblance to all the other chairs you've seen and remembered."

Facial recognition has one other stage—once you've recognised that it is a face, you then need to piece together which face it is. Which is where someone with prosopagnosia falters.

"I can see that a face is attractive or not attractive, male or female, I can tell emotions on the face, I just don't know whose face it is a lot of the time," says Tess. "When I concentrate on features they start slipping away, I can't pull together what they look like. So I concentrate on one feature at a time. This is what his eyebrows look like. That's the shape of her nose."

Up to 1 in 50 people suffer from prosopagnosia. Photo by BONNINSTUDIO via Stocksy

The spectrum of prosopagnosia encompasses everything from a regular lack of recognition right through to not being able to recognize what a face actually is.

"Some people on the spectrum can see something that looks like a face but can't really see the shapes properly so it looks a bit grey and blobby," says Dr. Jansari. "It's rare but some people genuinely wouldn't be able to describe someone's face at all."

For the three women I spoke to, and the 2 to 2.5 percent of people who have developmental prosopagnosia (prosopagnosia acquired due to brain damage is much rarer), the lack of recognition isn't as debilitating on a day to day basis as you'd think. It's all about the context.

I think that there is an expectation in this society for women to be more socially savvy, so they often feel a need to hide their difficulties related to social interaction.

"I go by process of elimination," says Zoe. "Say if a blond woman starts talking to me at work, and I only know three blonde women that work there, one wears glasses and the other wouldn't be acting quite so friendly since we've not really spoken, so it must but whomever is left." She's often tempted to remember people by their hairstyle or clothes, but this changes, so it's better to focus on the things that are less liable to alter. "Their actual hairline, say if they have a widow's peak or not," she explains. "Their teeth, their voice, mannerisms and general and demeanour."

She likens it to matching up pictures on a fruit machine. "When I find a match I can hear winning music, and the coins clattering, and I gather up my winnings and transfer them into a big, 'SAM! So nice to see you!' smooth save."

Context is something that anyone who has ever forgotten a face has to use in order to get those coins clattering, and while all three women I spoke to find it the most helpful, you can't always rely on it. You have to become what Tess calls "a master blagger [bullshitter]" as well.

"It's when people come up to you in the street—that's the hardest," she says. "Especially if they're average height, average build, and not wearing anything distinctive that gives you a clue. I say, 'God when was the last time we saw each other?' and if they say, 'Oh, Sally's party' then I hear a ch-ching. They might say something about the party that twigs, or they might refer to something you both talked about which can help. If not, the next one is, 'What have you been up to?' while trying to say as little about yourself as possible."

It's often said that women tend to be better at strategizing and coming up with techniques to disguise social problems than men—for example, boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, and yet there's a high rate of late diagnosis in adult females.

"I think that there is an expectation in this society for women to be more socially savvy, so they often feel a need to hide their difficulties related to social interaction," says Caroline. "Doctors may also not look for it in women as much for the same reason. Just like women aren't diagnosed with autism as readily as men."

At some level there may be something in the fact that females tend to be more socially skilled, and therefore maybe search for other features to help them recognize others.

I asked Dr. Jansari whether it's possible women are less likely to be diagnosed with prosopagnosia, and it turns out there's just not enough research done to back it up confidently. But there may be something in it.

"I've never heard of gender differences like that, but at some level there may be something in the fact that females tend to be more socially skilled, and therefore maybe search for other features to help them recognize others," he says. "But I don't have any science I could quote to back this up, I'm afraid."

When I told my female friend—the one who gets people confused when they take their hats off—she immediately took a test for face blindness. There are loads you can find online (the best, and most comprehensive one, being Dr Jansari's) and they involve well-known faces being taken out of context.

I watched as she failed to recognise Oprah Winfrey, George Bush, Tony Blair ("I think I've seen him wearing a hat at some point"), and Robert De Niro. It was funny, because here I was writing about face blindness, and there she was finding out that she was pretty much the perfect subject for my article. "The face you saw was Patrick Stewart," the website told her. "You said it was Gandalf."

Turns out she's got pretty good at hiding her prosopagnosia. And it shows that you can have a rare neurological condition for 27 years without even realising it —so maybe, if you're finding yourself constantly forgetting faces and getting confused when someone changes their hair, do this test. You never know.

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