I have recently diagnosed myself as having a mild case of prosopagnosia: difficulty recognising faces. It doesn’t mean that I go round greeting lampposts or kissing strangers on railway platforms! I have no problems with my family or close friends, but outside quite a select group, it can be a bit hit and miss. If you have a distinctive body shape, or facial feature, or you always wear the same jumper, I will probably recognise you most of the time, but otherwise I might not, especially if you make the mistake of turning up out of context. To explain what I mean using celebrity faces: I can recognise a picture of Cher, for example, but I have difficulties with Kylie Minogue.
I’ve known about this for years: I didn’t really have to do the online test to prove to myself I had a little problem. I had worked out for myself that it was not names that failed me, nor remembering the people themselves: it is specifically that the face does not reliably provide the key to the person in my brain.
Prosopagnosia affects perhaps 2.5% of the population and like many people I have decades of embarrassing memories! I can only say sorry to the many people who have bounced up to me in the street calling my name enthusiastically, only to be met with a blank stare. Sorry to the nice chap who sat next to me at a concert and talked to me throughout the interval about both my family and my work: no, I have never worked out who you were, and this has often haunted me. Worse, can be the attempts you make to correct for the deficit: 20 minutes into a conversation, only for the other person to look slightly stunned, “You must have mistaken me for someone else!” Well yes, I couldn’t work out who you were so I had relied on cues in your conversation, which turned out to be red herrings: you were actually my Pilates teacher, not my son’s form teacher. There are some people who, to this day, I am not quite sure if they are the same person who has cropped up in two different contexts, or two different people: how can I ever ask? Hey, guy who works at the desk two along from me, are you also the person who used to attend a group therapy session with me three years ago? Aaaggggh! And then there are the films that are rendered incomprehensible, because the plot hinges on recognising that the man in scene 6 is actually the cop we saw in scene 4 but in a different jacket…
I only did some research, and learned the name of this condition, after my daughter Julie unexpectedly announced that she was having difficulty identifying people at college. “It’s really embarrassing, Mum, some of the staff and other students must have known me in the main school, but I just don’t recognise their faces. I can’t work out if they’ve taught me before, or if I’ve had classes with them. I can’t recognise them!” I’ve never discussed my own problems before with anyone, so Julie’s admission came as a surprise, and completely unprompted. I was glad to find out that it was nothing worse than the problem I had struggled with myself for years!
It’s not a big deal for me, though I do tend to avoid certain social situations, but it’s hard when you’re 18, and already have other deficits caused by illness. It makes me wonder how something as simple as a problem with face recognition can feed into lasting difficulties with social interaction. Julie and I are working together to try and work out some strategies that might help her, and they might help me too: studying people’s faces for a little bit longer, trying to pick up on distinctive features on or off the face. I’ve been known to recognise people from their hands for example: it’s amazing how many people wear distinctive rings. And longer term, I’ve always been the one at work enthusiastically championing photo boards and name badges!