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What it’s like to be face blind

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2015

Prosopagnosia is a disorder where you’re unable to recognize faces. Neurologist Oliver Sacks and artist Chuck Close are both face-blind. This is a really interesting interview with a woman who suffers from prosopagnosia so completely that she cannot recognize her own daughter or even herself (sometimes).

The researchers concluded that I’m profoundly face-blind. One thing I find very difficult to get across is that it’s not as if I can’t recognize anybody at all — it’s that it can take me up to five minutes before I can figure out who they are. I have to wait for the signs. The other thing I have discovered is that there is a specific expression people have when they see somebody they know.

I call it the “I know you face” — it’s sort of a surprised micro expression. I’m convinced that it’s completely involuntary. It looks a little like surprise. The eyebrows go up, and usually the mouth opens like they’re about to say something. When I see it, I say hello, and then when I start interacting with them, I’ll remember who they are. That’s just one of a whole set of observational skills I’ve developed. Another is when I’m meeting somebody in public, I’ll arrive early so they’ll approach me.

I’m always looking for visual hooks. My daughter has a particular thing she does with her mouth. If there’s several people who could be her, I look for the mouth thing. If she’s nervous, or she’s irritated, one side of her mouth goes up. She’s done it since she was a baby. She doesn’t like having her photograph taken, so when I look at a group photo, I look for the kid with the smirk and I know it’s my daughter.

But her face-blindness is sometimes an advantage:

I’m also a very good listener because the tone of voice and body language are what I always pay attention to. I’m good at calming people down, because I can tell when they’re starting to freak out.

And she’s also less quick to notice things like race or gender:

When I worked at a homeless shelter, I was often praised for the way I interacted with my African-American clients. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing differently from the other white workers, but I was allowed into their circle and they bonded with me. When we lived in Louisiana, I was always being asked by African-American women if my husband was black.

When I was tested at Dartmouth, I scored low on unconscious racism. Apparently babies show a preference for their own race at about nine months because that’s when they start being able to recognize faces. My head doesn’t do this.

(via mr)