In an old photo, I’m sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table. I have long brown hair and an impish smile. I’ve just looked up at the camera. A coloring book sits open in front of me, and there’s a marker in my hand. When I show this photo to my husband, he says, “That’s not you.”
Of course it is me. I am the only granddaughter. That’s my long brown hair. I don’t remember the little red purse, or the coloring book, but certainly that’s me.
“No,” he says. “It doesn’t even look like you.”
I look more closely. I recognize the table, the wallpaper. I sat at that table many times as a young girl. But there is one thing. My eyes are blue… and hers are brown. She has brown eyes.
It’s not me.
But doesn’t it look just like me? “No,” says my husband. “It doesn’t look like you at all.”
I could have sworn it looked just like me.
Welcome to my life with face-blindness.
Face-blindness is a relatively little understood condition that has only recently been explored by researchers. Also known as prosopagnosia, it’s a disorder of the brain that impacts the facial recognition centers, and causes sufferers not to recognize people by their faces.
If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to understand how that’s possible. The first time someone described the condition to me, I wrote it off as nonsense. Everyone can see people’s faces, right? What do you mean they don’t recognize faces?
But the idea of it stuck with me, and I started researching. The more I researched, the more I realized that a prosopagnosia diagnosis would explain a great deal about my life.
The difficulty I have in following the plot of movies, because everyone looks alike.
The trouble I used to have telling apart the students in my classes, especially when they wore hats.
All those times someone walks up to me and talks like we’re old friends and I have no idea who they are.
There’s this one friend I’m very fond of who changes her hairstyle and color dramatically every week or so, and every week I have to ask my husband, “Is that Kim?”
One time, a different friend shared a link to a short film she was in. I watched it. When it was done, I almost said, “Hey, was that you in the lead role?” because the girl’s voice sounded just like hers. Just in time, I realized it was a dumb question. Seeing as how she had shared the link, said she was in the film, and the girl’s voice matched hers, of course it was her.
And that’s pretty much the story of my life. Averting embarrassment by keying in on contextual clues to compensate for my complete inability to recognize people by their faces.
Many people (myself included) are so good at compensation that they don’t even know they suffer from face-blindness until they’re adults and start putting the pieces together. We use clues like hair, glasses, unusual features, tattoos, mannerisms, voice, and context to puzzle together who someone is, because we’re missing the essential brain function most people are born with to know who is who by their faces. We just assume everyone else is doing it this way too.
Think of it this way. You go to Sea World (which maybe you don’t because that place is evil, but I digress) and meet the dolphins. The trainer tells you their names and you greet them individually. When you come back the next day, the trainer expects you to know which is which. Well. If you knew there would be a quiz, you might make the effort to memorize specific features–maybe one has a freckle just so, and another has a scar across her nose. A third one has a floppy top fin and the fourth is slightly darker in complexion than the others. You might pull it off.
But if it were sprung on you, a little pop quiz the day of, would you know the dolphins by their faces?
That is what it is like to be face blind. It’s like everyone is a dolphin and every day there’s a new pop quiz.
Most of the time, I function fine because I know the quiz is coming. When I walk into a room, I know who, more or less, to expect in that room. If everyone has distinguishing features for me to latch onto, I can very quickly assess who is who, and we’re golden. I can call the dolphins by name.
In some situations, however, I fail miserably. For instance, working doors. Please in the name of all that is holy, don’t ask me to work the door. All these people keep swimming by and some of them have paid, and some of them have had their IDs checked, and some of them belong here and some of them don’t, and I don’t know who is who is who is who. I will ask people to pay twice, some people will be pissed off because I’m checking their ID for the fifth time, and other completely unauthorized people will skate on by without checking in, because they look confident and (somewhat) familiar. Way too many dolphins, way too little time to process and distinguish them from one another.
Another thing that is hard for me: People in hats. Gah. How am I supposed to know who you are if you cover up your hair???
And then there are movies. Here’s the thing. I love stories. Like, a lot. I read constantly. I devour lengthy novels. I like live plays, too. But most movies are hard for me to sit through. I never understood why until I learned about my condition. You see, in live shows people mostly wear the same outfit from scene to scene, and the cast tends to be somewhat limited. But in movies, you’re expected to know the names and faces of dozens of characters who change clothes and sometimes even hairdos from scene to scene. And man, but Hollywood women all look alike. A LOT alike. Some Hollywood men do, too.
Once I realized what my problem was, I started watching movies again. Instead of suffering in embarrassed silence, I’d just ask my husband who each person was whenever I got confused. That approach worked well for me for the duration of one movie, after which Carey announced that he no longer really wanted to watch movies with me. Apparently, pausing the movie for discussion after each scene takes the fun out of watching. Who knew.
Nevertheless, it’s freeing to understand the cause of my difficulty. Among friends who know of it, it’s nice to be able to say, “I’m sorry, who are you again?” without offending them. It’s nice when people come up to me and without ado introduce themselves for the sixteen thousandth time, just because they know it might help me. It’s especially nice when I run into someone unexpectedly in the grocery store and they tell me their name. Thank you, gosh, thank you, I love you for that.
Which brings me back to the beginning. When I took the official face blindness test, I scored so low on facial recognition ability that I was classified as “extremely impaired.” But I recognize my own children! I thought to myself. Some people don’t recognize their own children. I have that at least. Of course, there is that little thing I did when they were little, where I dressed them in bright, distinctive colors when we went out so I wouldn’t lose them. Everyone has to have their children in distinctive colors to tell them apart from the other children on the playground, right? Right??
And lots of people mistake pictures of strangers for themselves, right? Before I showed that old photo to Carey, I posted it as a TBT on Facebook. The first comment on the thread is from my mother-in-law. She said, “I would not have guessed that was you.”
Well. Apparently my mother-in-law knows what I look like. Even if I don’t.
And that’s what it’s like to have face-blindness.
[Note: This entry was inspired by this delightful essay by Kelly Twine: What It’s Like To Be Face-Blind]
P.S. If you’re curious how you’d do on the face blindness test, it’s available online, right here.