I Can't See Faces: 5 Weird Facts About My Life
Have you ever had that weird feeling that comes with failing to recognize someone you've known all your life? Maybe it's a friend you haven't seen in six months who's lost 70 pounds since you last saw them, or your doctor turning up at the grocery store in a Hawaiian shirt and a week of vacation-beard stubble. It's almost like they're in disguise.
Now imagine this is your experience with every single person you know -- including your own family, spouse, and best friend. Constantly having to squint and say, "Bobby? Is that you?" That's what life is like with prosopagnosia, aka "face-blindness," an often hereditary condition that results in an inability to recognize faces. We sat down with someone who has this, and it turns out it's even weirder than you'd expect:
I Can See Faces, but I Can't Remember Them
When I tell people I can't recognize faces, a lot of them immediately call bullshit. To be fair, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. "You expect me to believe you can recognize this can of Coke, but not your own mother?" Yes, actually -- I'll tell that story later. "OK, what color are my eyes?" Ignoring the fact that I could easily lie, you're right in front of me right now. I'm not blind blind -- face-blindness doesn't mean I have a big black censorship box where your face should be; it means I can't process the finer points of what I'm seeing. It's the same as how most of you think all babies look alike, until you have your own (and admit it -- some of you have the same problem distinguishing members of other races).
As bizarre as the effect is, the science behind it is fairly straightforward. Because reading subtle changes in faces is so important to our survival ("Is that the murderous Oggoth or his gentle brother, Hogar? Does that look on Oggoth's face mean that he is scared or angry?"), we as a species developed a dedicated part of the brain solely for the task of processing faces, treating it as its own category of object. However, if that part of the brain is damaged or fails to develop for whatever reason, you process faces the same way you do a regular, inanimate object.
"So what?" you might be saying. "That doesn't sound so bad. It's not like stacks of LEGOs are any more difficult to see than a person's face." I will forgive your spectacular wrongness if you will perform a small exercise: Look at this random picture of LEGOs for five seconds ...
... then cover it and tell me exactly how many and what type of each piece is in the picture, and exactly where each one was positioned. That's what faces are like to me. I can see them perfectly fine, but I don't have the ability to process them as whole faces, rather than just piles of different face parts. Which means ...
The Smallest Changes in Appearance Will Turn Loved Ones Into Strangers
If you were suddenly tasked with, say, having to tell one rhinoceros apart from another (like if you started a racing circuit for them or something), the first thing you'd do is look for some obvious identifying characteristics ("This one has the scar on its horn, this one is a little darker than the rest," etc.). That's my primary coping strategy with people, to look for "visual hooks" that are unique to a person's face.
So, I have a friend who has one blue eye and one hazel eye, and I have another friend who is very tall -- if I make it a point to look for those things, I'm fine. Distinctive voices can also be helpful. Even something as nebulous as a unique facial expression can be a lifesaver for me -- I have one co-worker who I cannot recognize unless she smiles. She's a very average white lady in an office full of average white ladies, but when she smiles, I'm like, "Oh, hello Barb!"
On the other hand, if I see Barb outside of work, at the grocery store or something, I'm going to walk right past her. I can't even recognize my own reflection if I don't expect to see a mirror. True story: I was at a bar one time and I didn't know they had mirrors on the walls, so I kept wondering why this chick was giving me the stink-eye until I realized that chick was me (this is also how I discovered that I suffer from Resting Bitch Face).
So if you do anything to mess up the context for me, I'm lost. If my friend with the distinctive eyes wears sunglasses, she becomes just another random person -- kind of like how people can't recognize Superman when he puts on glasses and becomes Clark Kent. It can be anything -- cut your hair, get highlights, wear a different coat, change the style of makeup you wear, and presto, you're a stranger to me. My husband is never allowed to shave, because I recognize him by his beard. Needless to say, I can't go to see any Wes Anderson movies in the theater, because I might end up following some random bearded stranger back to the parking lot.
And yes, I will fail to recognize my own husband. I've walked right past my own children, and my mother (who also has prosopagnosia) has done the same thing to me. One time, when I was maybe 18 or 19, I agreed to go to an amusement park with my mother because she was going with my brothers and wanted me to keep her company. We agreed on a time to meet, but when I showed up, I couldn't find her. So I'm sitting there on this bench, getting progressively more pissed off because my family is late and I'm hungry and tired and don't particularly want to be there. Then I spotted this woman wearing capris and sandals and a sun hat, and she's looking just as pissed off as I am. I silently sympathized. Maybe she's waiting for her ungrateful mother too.
It turns out she was actually waiting for her ungrateful daughter (me). I had forgotten my mom was wearing those freaking capri pants because that wasn't something she normally wore. She also doesn't wear hats -- she'd just bought that sun hat that morning, because she was tired of getting burnt. Meanwhile, I had decided to put my long hair up and wear a tank top, when I normally wear things like sweatshirts, so she couldn't recognize me. We were both stewing about being stood up, when we were literally standing right across from each other.
In other words ...
It Can Be Socially Awkward as Hell
One time, when I was in college, I was in the ladies' room having a cigarette, because this was back when you were free to give everyone around you cancer. Between drags off my freedom-stick, I was complaining to this woman about a sociology class I was taking. She suggested that maybe I just didn't enjoy the subject, but I insisted, "The problem is the instructor is fucking boring! She doesn't know how to lecture!"
Suddenly the woman turned white. Her tone immediately shifted into a snapping lecture voice that was all too familiar, and I realized she was the instructor.
Again, the change in context was all it took -- her "bathroom conversation" voice was different from her "teaching a college course on sociology" voice, so I hadn't been able to recognize her outside of the classroom. Needless to say, I never went back to that class, and when I dropped it, I didn't even have her sign my drop slip -- I couldn't show my face around her ever again.
On another occasion, Harlan Ellison came to speak at my school, and I was part of the science-fiction club, so of course we all went to go see him. Right before he was supposed to speak, I was talking to a friend of mine, and this little man came up to me and said, "You're very loud." I said, "Excuse me?" and he said, "You're being very loud, and if you continue, we're going to have to ask you to leave." Then this little man reached over to me, pinched my cheek, and said, "Nice-looking woman, but so loud." I decided fuck that and had taken two steps toward this tiny cheek-pinching asshole to set him straight when my friend grabbed me and yelled, "THAT'S HARLAN ELLISON."
And then there's the story of how I met my husband. He worked at a bookstore, so naturally I would hang out there a lot. But there was a problem: He had a co-worker with the same hairstyle. Even though they didn't actually look much alike, I didn't know either of them well enough to pick up any of the "visual hooks" I talked about earlier. Consequently, when I would go to the bookstore looking for my future husband, I never knew which one of them was at the counter. I just had to awkwardly stand around and wait for him to speak to a customer so I could recognize his voice, which I'm sure in no way made me look like a serial murderer.
But before I make this all sound too tragic, there is an upside ...
It Has Made Me a Nicer Person, Against My Will
Pretty people are the most difficult to tell apart, which makes watching TV or movies a nightmare. You know how some people have trouble following Game of Thrones because there are 20,000 characters and they're all white guys with beards? That's every show for me. Traditionally attractive people all have the same basic configuration of features, so there's nothing distinctive for me to latch onto. When I was in high school, there was no way I could hang with the popular crowd. That blonde girl over there might be the girl who talked to me yesterday, or she might be the girl who punched me in the chest -- they both had the same hair color and eye color, and they're both cute and thin. I had no idea.
As a result, I started hanging with the punk kids, because they all had different-colored hair in a number of creative topiary formations, so they were easier to tell apart. They were also much more tolerant of weirdness, particularly the druggies, who were like, "You take some bad shit and you forget your own name, I know how it goes." I had another friend who looked just like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter. People teased her for being an "albino," and I don't know if she actually was, but I loved her because you could spot her even in the dark.
Likewise, if a kid had any kind of disability -- if they walked with a limp or had asthma or something -- they were easier to identify. It'd be tough to spot Bradley Cooper in a gym, but you could pick Stephen Hawking out of a crowd immediately. I felt a lot more comfortable around the so-called "outcasts," because I could tell who the hell they were.
My dream school.
Also, I sort of have a biological immunity to racism -- because I have to process each facial feature as a separate object, I can't put them all together to figure out whether a person is black or white or whatever. After the fact, I can say, "Well I guess he was black, because he had dark skin," but even then, that person could have easily been Indian or Middle-Eastern. I used to work in a women's shelter where the residents were about half black and half white, and I would get a lot of compliments on how I interacted with them, because I treated everyone exactly the same.
It was a little weird for me, because I will be the first to admit that I am not an inherently more enlightened person. I'm just as much of a judgmental asshole as anyone else. I'm sure if my brain worked properly, I would be carrying around just as much latent cultural baggage. I'm just physically incapable of recognizing different races, so even if I did have some kind of terrible prejudice lurking in my subconscious, I'll never have a chance to demonstrate it.
Another odd bonus? Face-blindness does give you an almost supernatural power to understand emotional cues. Since many people have distinctive ways they move or facial expressions that I can use as a visual hook, I've learned to pay close attention to body language, which has had a side effect of making me better able to sense the slightest emotional shift. It's the closest thing to mind-reading that you can get without sailing through cosmic radiation.
For example, you're probably not aware of the fact that you have a distinct facial expression that you make whenever you recognize someone. It's very subtle, but because I live in a world where everyone around me is essentially wearing an elaborate disguise like Liam Neeson in Darkman, I've learned to look for it. When I see you make the "I know you" face at me, I know to at least say hello, which buys me a few seconds to try to decode who the hell you are.
You Can Spend Your Whole Life Not Knowing You Have It
Reports of prosopagnosia have popped up pretty regularly in the scientific community over the last half-century or so. The term was coined by Joachim Bodamer in 1947 and most famously described in Oliver Sacks' amazingly titled 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Still, a person with prosopagnosia probably would've had to stumble upon those books by accident to realize that what they were experiencing was an actual condition and not a symptom of being extremely terrible at friendship. Until the Internet allowed us to start talking to each other, we assumed we were just "bad with faces" or socially awkward assholes. Now that we're easier to find, we have a lot more hope for continued research into the bizarre shitshow that is face-blindness.
Before that, people with my condition basically lived in hiding. The older people I know say they tended to gravitate toward small cities, which would allow them to deal with fewer people. That worked as a coping technique, but unfortunately also kept the condition relatively unknown. When my grandfather would walk to church with my mother, he would tip his hat to everyone he saw. Everyone thought he was a super-friendly guy, but he was really just covering his bases because he couldn't recognize anyone and didn't want to seem rude if he passed by a friend or acquaintance without acknowledging them.
Even now, a lot of the time it can be better just to not tell people. You might assume that most people would rather hear that you have a condition that prevents you from remembering people's faces rather than they're just so forgettable you couldn't be bothered to remember who the hell they are, but sometimes they get really offended. They think you're lying or somehow doing it on purpose. Believe it or not, it can actually be better to just say you're bad with faces, even though that sounds more like a lame excuse than, "I have a debilitating medical condition that makes everyone around me permanent strangers."
So, if I seem irritated that you've decided to suddenly start wearing hats, dye your hair a different color, or invest in giant Flavor Flav timepieces, please don't be mad. I'm not trying to smother your creativity; it just means that I like you enough to want to be able to know who you are when we run into each other on the street.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Awful Lessons I Learned Living With a Mystery Illness and 6 Weird Realities of My Life With an Awful Superpower.
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