Other Oddities – Face Blindness

Part two, describing my other oddities. At the point when I took the Aspie Quiz for the very first time, I had already discovered a few other odd things about myself. The first thing I discovered was Sensory Processing Disorder, which mainly required planning ahead and being aware of my surroundings in order to minimize the discomfort I constantly felt by simply being out in the world.

The second thing I discovered was that other people could remember/recognize faces, particularly of their friends/family. I learned that many people can actually picture those familiar faces in their minds.

Face Blindness – Prosopagnosia

I was around 27 years old when I realized that it was unusual not to be able to see faces in my mind. It’s funny how difficult it can be for us to realize how we’re different from other people in such fundamental ways.

For the longest time, face-blindness was thought to only result from a traumatic brain injury. That was primarily believed because those of us who don’t remember faces (or, in some people’s cases, don’t even see faces clearly in the first place) have no easy way of knowing that other people do remember faces or see them differently than we do.

I mean, there were definitely signs that were obvious in retrospect, once I knew what I hadn’t known. People who appeared to be strangers would approach me in the grocery store and obviously know me quite well – asking by name how my children were doing – while I scrambled to reconcile that I allegedly knew someone who had appeared to be a complete stranger just a few seconds previously. That reconciliation had to happen before I could even begin to start racking my brain for *how* I might have known this person, let alone figure out what their name might have been.

Needless to say, I failed at remembering pretty much everyone’s name and I felt too embarrassed to ask many questions because, at the time, I assumed that other people struggled the way I did and that they were simply better at managing those social expectations than I was. Maybe they had some kind of trick or they studied things about people while using complicated mnemonic devices to remember people’s names and what they looked like. No matter what or how hard I tried though, I couldn’t do it.

This inability to recognize people or remember names fed even more into my self-doubt. I wasn’t good enough was completely inept at doing something so basic that all the other people clearly could somehow manage just fine. Maybe I was just lazy and didn’t care about those people enough? It seemed logical and I concluded that must be it.

I have no idea how many people I might have offended or upset over the years with my inability to recognize them. In Bill’s Faceblindness Book* he talks about how the usual time of recognition using faces is approximately a split second, while a more typical time of recognition with non-face methods (hair, clothing, gait, voice, body type, etc) is usually within ~8 seconds, *if* we know the person well and/or are expecting to see them somewhere.

Most people expect to be recognized by fairly well-known friends/acquaintances within that split second window. Movie and television show directors expect audiences to recognize characters on the screen within that split second window. Those ~7 extra seconds can make a huge difference in understanding, both in real life and when watching video footage of any kind.

Thus, face blindness also perfectly explained why I had always found it to be nearly impossible to follow the plots of many movies. This was particularly true with older movies where the main characters were primarily men with similar haircuts/styles and clothing. Science fiction was a wonderful refuge for me. I believe that’s true at least partially because the characters (often being aliens/robots/etc) were easier to tell apart based on things other than faces.

How did I finally figure out that I was unusual in not being able to remember faces? Well, my husband eventually happened to be with me during one of those confusing grocery store encounters and afterwards he asked me who the person was and why I hadn’t introduced him. I told him that I had no idea who the person was or that they hadn’t met him before. He was baffled by my response.

I explained to him that I pretty much never introduce people to each other any more unless I’m meeting one of them for the first time and I’m aware that I’m meeting them for the first time. Otherwise I find myself introducing people to each other and then they often will both look at me and one will inform me of something like the fact that we were all three chatting together for hours at the last park day so they know each other pretty well, thank you.

Oh.

So I stopped.

My husband told me that of course he could remember faces, that everyone could. Well, not me… I don’t even see faces in my dreams. When I mentally picture people I know, I can’t see their faces. I can picture everything else in my head – I think primarily in pictures, after all – but I cannot picture any human faces.

Thinking and looking back through my life, I realized that I had heard of face blindness once many years before!

In one of the Emily of New Moon books by LM Montgomery, a trilogy that I read repeatedly as a tween/teen, there’s a tangential character who says at one point (quoting from memory, might not be word-for-word) that he “can’t see faces in [his] mind the way other people can.”

BUT! It was a novel. People make things up in novels all the time – that’s why it’s fiction. I assumed that being able to see faces in minds was just something in the novel, not necessarily true in real life. After all, I couldn’t see faces in my mind so it must just be part of the fiction of it all. A plot device.

Anyhow, I ended up taking a famous person face-blindness test soon after the grocery store visit and subsequent discussion with my husband. For the test they block out the hair completely so you just see the face. The test is self-scored, so you don’t have to remember names. It also only counts the people you feel that you should have recognized so you aren’t penalized for not recognizing famous people with whom you aren’t familiar.

Needless to say, I scored abysmally while my husband scored quite high. I didn’t recognize one of my most favorite celebrities and was convinced that yes, okay, face blindness is a thing and I have it. My favorite celebrity on the test (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else who wants to take it by saying who it is) doesn’t even have hair to speak of, but his baldness and his voice, which was also not represented in the test, are very large parts of how I recognize him.

Even more of my life was starting to make a great deal of sense.

Note:

*If you think that you or anyone you love might have face-blindness then I strongly recommend that you click the link to Bill’s Faceblindness Book. It’s a free ebook so pretty long but well-worth the read if you want to understand what kinds of challenges face-blindness comes with.

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8 thoughts on “Other Oddities – Face Blindness

  1. I find this so fascinating! I can’t even begin to comprehend what this must be like. I actually have a friend who has both prosopagnosia AND aphantasia (lack of “mind’s eye”) and they somehow manage to be a successful visual artist amongst other things, which always surprises me. It’s amazing really, no two people ever perceive the world in the exact same way.

    Liked by 1 person

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