What it's like to be face-blind

As a teenager, I loved movie hopping. I would buy a ticket for a movie, go watch that movie, and then when it finished, I would sneak into a second movie. I didn’t do this all the time because I didn’t usually have extra money to go to the movies, but when I did it, I made it count. My record for number of movies seen in theater in one night is four :1408, Ratatouille, Evan Almighty, and License to Wed.

I had a whole strategy: After the movie, I would casually go into the restroom, put my hair in a different style, put on or take off my jacket (whichever was the opposite of the way I walked in), take off or put on my glasses, and then casually strut out of the restroom and into a second theater. For years I thought I was so sneaky.

Then last year during a psychology class, I learned about a little disorder called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. It is the inability to recognize faces. You can see a face, you can identify that it is indeed a face, but you do not necessarily perceive the difference between that face and other faces. For me, if someone changes their hair or their clothes or wears glasses when they normally don’t, they look like a completely different person. Until I was 25 years old, I thought this was completely normal. I thought that’s how it was for everyone. I did not realize that other people could recognize people from their faces alone. I thought I could put on my disguise and look like a completely different person. Turns out, the minimum wage theater employees probably could tell I was sneaking into yet another movie and they just didn’t care.

We pushed through the subject of prosopagnosia in class, but I identified so well with all the signs and symptoms that I started to do my own research. Struggles to recognize people outside of  their usual context, check! (This includes people I see frequently, even friends, family members, neighbors, classmates. You name ’em, I’ll fail to recognize them if they are dressed differently and located somewhere I would not expect to find them.) Primarily uses other features to recognize people, like distinguishing characteristics, clothing style/uniform, body type, hair, glasses, etc, check! New haircuts/hair colors are one of the biggest curve balls when it comes to trying to recognize someone.

Since then I have scoured magazines to see which celebrities I recognize. I recognize almost none in the “Stars: They’re just like us!” column, and I’m not great at the red carpet photos either unless the person has something very distinguishable about them. I’ve taken all the online tests I could find. I’ve run out of legitimate tests, so I make up my own out of different things like “What celebrities would look like as ordinary people” where they put celebrity faces on other bodies.
I’ve read a lot of stories on the internet of people talking about their experiences with prosopagnosia. A common theme I see in a lot of them is embarrassment. Before people realize why they have such a hard time recognizing people, not recognizing someone you should can be really embarrassing. I can attest to this. A few examples of embarrassing situations off the top of my head.

In college, I met my boyfriend in my apartment building. It was one big social apartment complex where everyone knew and talked to everyone else living there. So there was my boyfriend, Adam, and there was this other guy who had similar hair, a similar build, and wore similar clothes. I always got Adam and this guy mixed up! Whenever I would see this guy talking in a group of people, I would go up to the group to talk thinking I was going to be talking with Adam. As soon as he would talk or move or something I would realize my mistake and be so embarrassed. I did not tell Adam about this until a few years later when I realized there was a legitimate reason that kept happening to me and I didn’t have to feel bad about it.

A couple of years ago, my fiance and I moved into a house that four other guys lived in. One of them had dark skin and one of them had bushy long hair. Those two were easy to identify, inside the house at least. But the other two were tall, athletic, fair skinned dudes with short dark hair. For at least a month, anytime I would enter the living room and see one of them, I had to have a conversation with them in order to figure out which one it was. As I got to know them better, I was able to pick up on other cues to tell which one it was. For a long time in the beginning though, it was so difficult and embarrassing trying to figure out which one I was talking to.

Now I realize there is no reason to be embarrassed because it’s not my fault!  When I worked in a relatively small retail store and I couldn’t find the customer I was helping; when I fail to recognize a co-worker walking around the office because they are not at their desk; when I don’t recognize my neighbor when I run into her at the store; when one person is helping me in a store and I accidentally approach another person and talk to them as if they’ve been helping me… that’s all okay! It’s not my fault! I am not socially inept or rude or anything like that. My brain just doesn’t process faces and that is perfectly OK.

Another thing that is hard to do for people who can’t recognize faces is tell people apart in photos, especially if it is a dated photo. I have a hard time telling my brothers apart in their childhood photos if there is not at least two of them in it. My mom looks so different in photos from when she is younger that I would never know it was her if someone didn’t tell me. I can’t recall a specific situation where I haven’t recognized myself in a photo taken in  a weird setting, but I would not be surprised if it happened. When all you have to go by is the face, it’s hard.

Babies are also hard. I can never tell babies apart. I always wondered how other people could and been paranoid that if I have a baby I won’t be able to tell which one it is if it is with other babies. It helps if a baby is especially chubby or has a lot of hair or something, but other than that they just all look the same. This is also why I never understood people debating which parent the baby looks like. It has the mom’s nose, the dad’s eyes, whoever’s expressions. I just didn’t get it, and at least now I know why.

I am learning new things about prosopagnosia all the time. It has been liberating to learn why I have struggled in certain social encounters and why I often need to wait for people to approach me first. But you know what? It’s totally OK. Just don’t be offended if I don’t recognize you.

Story by Kelly Twine

[Image via iStock]

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