Prosopagnosia: The Condition of not Recognizing People's Faces

Everybody has a face. People are created being able to recognize faces from a very young age. Studies have shown that babies will tend to look at faces over other objects. Everyone’s face is different, and a common way to identify people. Faces are full of distinctive features like eye color, ear type, nose type, location of the parts, the shape and size of it, etc. Most people take this common feature of recognizing their friends, colleagues, bosses and even acquaintances for granted. But not everybody can use this skill, this gift. Some people have a deficiency in this area, called prosopagnosia.

Prosopagnosia is a term that simply means face-blindness. A person with this condition can see faces but has trouble recognizing them. People with this condition are not able to use all the distinguishable features mentioned in my little intro to their advantage. People can have it to different degrees. Some people like me have trouble recognizing people by their faces, but can recognize people by using compensation strategies that I will talk about later. There is no cure for the condition. There’s no way to make it get better; the only strategy is to adapt.

An easy way to illustrate prosopagnosia, is to get a friend or family member to cut out pictures of faces of famous people, turn them upside down and glue them on a poster board. People will have a harder time recognizing the people on the board. This is the closest way for a person to see what it’s like to have face-blindness. I run an Autism support group for adults. A few years ago my meeting featured prosopagnosia, and I had every participant take part in this activity. Some people had an easier time than others at figuring out who the people were by their upside down faces. Now you may think I have it tough having prosopagnosia, but there are much more severe cases. Some people can’t recognize their own family and some even themselves. I had read that there are people who can’t identify themselves on pictures. This kind of reminds me of the known fact that animals can’t recognize themselves. Your pet cat looks in a mirror and sees her reflection. She starts batting at it with her paw like it’s another cat. Yes, cats can’t recognize themselves in the mirror. It does seem though that cats know what other cats look like.


There are a variety of ways that prosopagnosia can affect a person. The first way is at school, in a support group, etc. When I went to Shippensburg University, I had already taken a majority of my general classes, so most of my classes were in my major. One would think that as I got up into the 300 and 400 level classes the students in my classes would be the same people. I saw people in most of the classes who seemed to know each other from other classes, but I didn’t recognize them. I recognized only a very few people. It seemed like my luck was that I always had classes with different people. Of course for a person who has trouble making friends, this would seem frustrating. How did the other students get so lucky to know people in their classes and not get thrown in with mostly random people, like I did? Well, the truth is though I can’t prove it, it’s probably because I have prosopagnosia. I probably had classes with the same people as well and didn’t know it. I was not able to recognize them from class to class and from term to term. Each term it seemed like I was starting over with totally new students in my classes. Keep in mind, that at college, they don’t usually go over rosters, so I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the common people in my classes that way. Other places where the same people attend like meetings, my support group and FOCUS functions (an organization that helps give life and social skills to people with autism) work similarly.


A second major way it can affect people is by causing a person not to be able to recognize people they know. The person can be “out of context,” for example, seeing your dental hygienist at the Chinese restaurant at the food court, seeing your teacher at the public library the same year you have her, or meeting your friend at an unexpected place. People from years prior like classmates you haven’t seen in years can fit in this category. Once the person tells you their name (or in case of the hygienist that they’re your hygienist), then suddenly you know exactly who they are. You can give them information that will let them know that you know them. But I tell you, this is embarrassing.

A third issue it causes is making it hard to meet new people. If you have social anxiety like me, meeting new people is hard enough. It’s even harder when you don’t know if the person is a “new” person or not. If you don’t in particular like meeting new people in first place, why would you want to meet the same person over and over again just because you don’t recognize them?


A fourth way it can affect you is in the entertainment industry. This condition makes it hard to tell characters apart in movies and television shows. How can you understand what is going on, if you can’t recognize the main characters? A solution to this problem is to watch animated films. The characters in these films are easier to recognize. The people have features that are more exaggerated and even their voices tend to be easier to recognize. If you are at the movies with someone watching a regular film and they know you have the issue, they can help you figure the main characters and try to give you tips to recognize them. Of course, they can only do this sparingly so you may still not understand the movie. Sometimes understanding the movie comes part way through and other times parts of the movie are explained on the way home. Some movies like Pirates of the Caribbean are hopeless. I had a friend try to explain the movie to me years later and I still don’t understand the movie.


There are people who look similar. To a person with prosopagnosia, the two people may look identical to each other. I had this experience at my support group. I have a friend who goes to my support group regularly and occasionally another person goes who looks very similar. What I do in that situation is try to listen for clues as to who’s who. Clues would be if one of them was called by name or if I heard one of them speak. Their personalities are drastically different as well.


How else does prosopagnosia affect people in their daily life? Here are two examples. One day, my parents, brother, grandmother and I went to the mall. Dave (my brother) and I split off and went in our own direction, probably to look at the music store or the video game store. Anyway, my grandmother decided to get her hair done while she was at the mall. She did not tell us that she was going to do this. At some point, my brother and I passed her in the mall, but she didn’t say anything. We didn’t either. I saw a person who kind-a resembled my grandmother but she looked different. She had her hair styled differently than before. Also I thought it was weird that she didn’t say anything to us. As it turns out, when we all met back up, it was my grandmother. She was waiting for Dave or me to say something to her and thought it odd that we didn’t say anything. The big kicker, she got her hair cut and styled. Her hair looked different, and I didn’t know she was planning to get it done. My prosopagnosia had duped me.


Another story that illustrates prosopagnosia well happened a few years back at FOCUS’s Autism Walk and Expo. I had a booth there with the purpose of promoting my support group. My friend Matt, must have heard about it and decided to go. Now he doesn’t have autism and I did not expect to see him there (out of context). When he first came and hung out at my booth (before the expo started), I wondered who was hanging out at my booth. He seemed to know me. Eventually I figured out it was my friend Matt.

As I mentioned above, there is no cure for face-blindness or any way to make the condition better. What you can do is adapt. No adaptations are perfect but they can help. You can use hair color, hair style, etc. to tell people apart. Once you know who someone is (whether you heard their name mentioned, they told you, etc.) memorize how their hair looks and it will often work for the rest of the time you’re in that situation. A caveat, women may change their hair in the middle of a function. An example is that they may tie their hair in a ponytail or they may let it down. You can also memorize the color of the clothing a person is wearing or some other distinguishing feature about their clothes. This won’t let you down during your gathering, but you will have to repeat it at the next gathering you attend. Keep in mind, that regardless of which of these two strategies you use they have to be reapplied and analyzed at every event. These features change. You can try to recognize the person’s voice. Voices generally do not change, but they have their limits too. Not everyone has a distinctive voice.

If you are running a group you can use name tags to correct the issue. The people will think the tags are for new members who don’t know everybody. If you’re lucky, you may attend a group or meeting where they are doing just that. This strategy is fool proof during the event, but it won’t help you when you see the person the next time, assuming next time isn’t a similar situation to the previous one. Another caveat is that if people are aware of your face-blindness and using name tags for that reason, you may have to remind them. People may sometimes write silly names on their tags for jokes, and that isn’t helpful for a person with prosopagnosia.


You can tell people you have face-blindness and that is why you don’t recognize them when they tell you who they are. Remember though, people forget and most likely you’ll have to tell them every time.

Prosopagnosia, or face-blindness can be a real problem as indicated all throughout this post. It can’t be fixed, and you can’t improve your ability to recognize faces. As I mentioned before, the good news is you can adapt to this issue and find strategies to reduce the impact the condition has on your life. No strategy is fool proof though. People can change their hairstyles and hair colors. People wear clothing that looks quite different. People can grow taller. No matter what strategy you use, sometimes you will fail. Hopefully someday, scientists will figure out the brain glitch that causes this problem and will fix it. For the time being, I will just keep adapting.

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