Could You Recognise This Zebra by Its Stripes?

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!

  1. Danni said:

    It’s more common in autistics and other neurodivergent people (I have a suspicion you have some of those genes in your family, from what I’ve read). Both my husband and I have it to differing degrees (I cannot always recognise my own daughter and can’t remember what I look like, he can manage people he knows really well). I mostly recognise people by hair, voice and movement, and just knowing what it was helped by letting me consciously think of coping methods (and being able to explain I’m not good with faces when I’m completely stuck).

    I find photos a bit easier, because I can study them and often context helps. I love people with really distinctive hairstyles or clothes as I can identify them much easier. There’s quite a bit on the internet about ways to cope so hopefully you and Julie will be able to find something helpful. If it’s a major problem, mentioning it to her personal tutor at college might help – so they can help if someone thinks she’s being rude, but that might not be needed. Memory issues caused by mental illness or the medications used to treat it make it a lot worse (I can’t remember people I saw frequently when very ill, even if they were distinctive) but that bit improves.

    I’m glad you’ve discovered it. It’s an interesting condition. We still get the emotional recognition of someone we know even if we can’t consciously remember so it’s the opposite of Capgras syndrome (where you believe someone you know has been replaced by an imposter).

    • Thanks Danni, that’s fantastic. Yes, I did wonder about the connection with autism actually: I wondered if we just spent less time studying people’s faces, for example. Would be interesting to see some research on this. My son, who has a diagnosis of ASD, clearly doesn’t recognise people much of the time (though he doesn’t seem to care twopence!). And yes, I think Julie’s medication is probably exacerbating the problem.

      Capgras syndrome sounds really frightening! How horrible that must be.

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