(Andrea has written several posts about faceblindness
– see the listing at the bottom of this page.)
Here I am sitting at my computer; it’s night, and my reflection is there in the bedroom window. My dark hair disappears into the inky night, leaving behind a face composed of man-in-the-moon highlights and shadows from the desk lamp. The actual face is a slightly blurry composite because the glass needs cleaning.
I have this sinking realization that aside from the familiar shirt, the face could really belong to any number of people. I’d never realized before that I don’t actually recognize my own face — I only recognize that that I’m looking in a mirror at myself, which isn’t really the same thing.
I’m usually squinting at myself nearsightedly in the morning when I comb my hair, so the individual features present the same: a familiar nasal bridge, or an eye with a scar by it. Once in a while I’ll catch sight of a side profile reflection in some random mirror at a store, and be surprised to see someone wearing clothes like mine … it’s downright weird!
Photos of me never look like the individual features I see in the mirror; there’s a whole person there that other people say looks like me. You know, the way that people say your recorded voice sounds like you. I just take their word for it. After all, I remember being in the circumstances from the photo.
I have difficulty identifying people out-of-place, remembering names (especially common names), or finding people in crowds, including my own children on the playground, or my husband and children in a line of people disembarking the jetway.
I had no idea that the children in my grade school classes were mostly the same pupils that had been in my classes from previous years. Moreover, I could not list their names nor even recall how many of them were girls or boys, when pressed upon to do so by my mother.
I often do not notice/pay attention to the sex of a person. I also rarely remember eye color, with the exception of people whom I have been around for a long time, or those with unusual eye color (such as the guy in a class with startlingly ice-blue eyes, which I found painful to even glance at).
Few things inspired terror like being handed a stack of graded assignments and told to hand them out to the other students in the class.
I often recognize people by their gait, posture, clothing, hairstyle or the timbre of their voice. I often do not recognize someone until I “hear their face”. If I run into someone who shares a specific trait I use to identify a person, I may have difficulty sorting out if this is “my” person with the red hair or another person with the red hair. People with unusual traits are much easier to cue on and remember; I learn the foreign-born and atypical much quicker than the much more “generic” clean-cut white faces that swarm around a college campus. People in uniforms who do not have extremely distinctive features are even worse to identify.
This all sounds bizarre to most people. And folks will tell me that they also “have trouble with names and faces”. But when they really mean is that they have trouble remembering the names that go with the faces they recognize. I have trouble recognizing faces, which in the past year I have learned is called prosopagnosia, or more commonly (although it is hardly common!) “face-blindness”.
So for me, people are often mentally sorted by place; I will see the same pharmacist at the market and recognize them as such. But should they be off work and wearing street clothes rather than a lab coat, or in another location (such as the library) then that person is as good as a complete and utter stranger to me. This is because I use “likelihood sets” as a crutch for identifying people, e.g., I am likely to meet Entomology professors in one hall, Horticulture professors in another, the pharmacist, nurse and doctor at the student health center.
When my husband introduced me to his college friends, two of them were large, tall guys with beards, and both of their single-syllable names started with the letter “D”; moreover, I was introduced to both of them in the same time and place. It took me a couple of months to get them sorted out! During that two months I lived in a kind of social terror of making some comment that would indicate my utter confusion.
When I was a child my father grew a mustache while my mom and I visited Grandma. After we returned, every time he turned his face towards me, I thought, “Who is that person?” It took me a week before I got used to it and automatically registered the face as my father.
Non-facial objects such as species of plants and insects, or cloud forms are easy for me to recognize. I was aware of this problem as a child, but unaware of the extent of it, as I did not know how much others could identify that I was not. People assumed that I was snubbing them intentionally; sometimes the attribution errors are worse than the actual problem.
So what do I do when I run into someone whom I cannot quickly identify? This is likely due to the fact that they are “out of place”, or else have changed the cueing factor (haircut, facial hair, glasses). So I rely on their mannerisms, gait or posture (tricky, as these take more input time and analysis), or hope that the person will make some kind of comment that provides the clue. Of late, I have finally given up trying to guess and will just out and ask them.
A couple of years ago I had to pick up a guest speaker at the airport. Well I did have a photograph of the person from a web site, but such photos are notoriously out of date, especially with regards to not only aging, but also haircuts, glasses, the kind of clothing the person would be wearing at the airport compared to what was being worn in the candid shot, and even the lighting used in the photograph and the background scenery! In my email I simply explained that I have trouble finding people in crowds, and would be holding up a sign with his name on it. Plenty of other people do this in airports. The difficulty for me was the second day, when I was supposed to pick him up at the hotel lobby and because I had met him once before, “should” be able to find him. Fortunately, he had a distinctive set of characteristics and was also good at picking me out in a crowd!
I have to check every single person in the crowd to compare them to my search image. (Sometimes I run into stupid moments, like, “Not, not, not, — oh, wait a minute, this bench is full of brown people, I can skip all of these bodies –” Duh!)
It is easier to re-find someone, because I try to make a conscious effort to remember what they’re wearing, so I can limit the checks to “every human in a blue shirt”. But for my family coming off the jetway, my teenage daughter (who is normally easier to find because she has long hair) had purchased a new coat (a long woolen coat that hid her body shape) and was wearing a scarf tied on her head!
I cannot remember people’s faces or bring up an image of them in my mind. I can remember photographs of them, just as one might remember a particular label on a grocery item. The faces are not what I remember about people; at the risk of sounding offensive, they are not important to me. This has had other, curious effects upon how I perceive things.
So often in my past I had tried to make myself learn something in the manner it was taught, and failed to do so well (or at all) because I do not learn or process information in the same manner that it was either taught, or the way the learning process was proscribed. For example, drawing was often described in art books (and classes) as being a process whereby you create the body and limbs out of a series of ovals, and then smooth out the outline.
In other words, one creates the whole from the parts, or integrating a combination of features. Faceblind people see the same individual features, but those features do not resolve into a unified and distinctive whole (gestalt) that we can remember and recognize in different permutations. I can identify hundreds of plants and insects, but with those, I am only identifying things down to the family, genus or species level. With humans, we have to identify down to the individual level.
But back to the art problem. I cannot draw this way, of connecting different parts. Instead, I start with the silhouette, and then fill in the middle — my visual process is radically different! The first thing I notice about a person is their size or spatial mass, not, as I read most people do, their sex.
I was doing some closet-cleaning the other week, and came across my portfolio of projects from when I took Commercial Art classes some years ago. One picture was an assignment: “Abstraction, select a natural object, create an abstract of that object”, cat, done in ink (dip-pen & pot of ink). I remember thinking about cats, and what qualities of the body shape define them as having “cat-ness”, and decided that it was the tail, the angularity of the limb joints, the pointed ears and the whiskers. But as I said, I tend to perceive things primarily by the mass and outline and by specific traits.
Most everyone did animals for that abstraction assignment, although the instructor pointed out that my drawing was the only one showing the animal from the back side, without the eyes.
Mine was the only picture without a face!
The reason I drew the cat from this perspective was that the goal of the assignment was to draw something with as few lines/as little detail as possible (as abstractly as possible), yet still be able to produce an image that was recognizable as such. So, I picked out those details (tail, limb joints, ears, whiskers) that TO ME were the representational details, those details that I use to identify the particular object, in this case a cat. Everyone else put the eyes into their animal illustrations, even if they left out the other facial details in their efforts to simplify the abstraction.
But the facial details are not what I cue in to.
I remember when one of our entomology profs was taking a microphotograph of a very small insect. He has an expensive program that combines the digital microscope images from several focal planes together, so even excruciatingly small insects can be photographed in complete focus. Something he told me was, “Always make sure the eyes are in focus; everyone notices the eyes.” Had he not mentioned that to me, I would not have known that the eyes were important to other people.
OTHER POSTS DEALING WITH FACEBLINDNESS:
Incurable, endurable — sometimes to deal with things you just gotta have fun: Top Ten Things About Having Faceblindness (Prosopagnosia).
I cannot recognise people from their ID photos. Once I am very familiar with a group of people from having been around them a long time, I can use a sort of mental flow-chart to sort out who’s who, such as in a departmental group photo. Unfortunately, some people mistake “being able to distinguish between knowns within a set” with “being able to recognise between a set of knowns and a set of unknowns”. So photo directories do not help me learn to identify people: Smile!
People who don’t repeat frequently during my lifetime will fade from my ability to identify them: Rare Sightings.
One of the problems the faceblind run into is “twinning”, where we mistake two people for the same person. It’s not that everyone looks identical, but rather that people exist in different “types” of indistinguishable individuals: Typecasting.
Helping the awkward new student seemed like a good idea, so why did it make everything worse? Help was apparently something that is done to you and for you; I was the passive recipient for help. They were strangely disempowering, these activities that were ostensibly for my benefit: Being the Class Project: Reflections Upon False Inclusion.
Here’s a word we faceblind need: Tartle TAR-tl (Scottish) v. To hesitate or be slow when recognising a person or thing. Those of us who are faceblind tartle a LOT. New tools you didn’t even know you needed.
Making connections about who’s who required a lot of careful analysis, drawing connections and ruling out confounds between dissimilar data sets, as though I am playing a particularly difficult level of Sudoku involving personnel instead of numbers. It makes my own participation so much easier if my hubby can mention to me who people are and how I would know them, and update me as to what is going on in their lives that will likely be relevant to current events: Social Captioning.
The faceblind person prepares for a job interview: Welcome to the First Ring of Hell.
Who cares about the Beautiful People out there if we can’t tell them apart? The faceblind person may prefer the faces of people who are distinctive, because they can be more easily recognized, and thus are associated with less stress of identification, and because they increase the likelihood of repeated identification. As you might expect, faceblindness plays hell with dating. No Eye for Beauty.
Uniformity of dress and hairstyle removes so many layers of identifying characteristics that all those FLDS women become indistinguishable: Clonal Antibodies
Greg Williams does a weekly cartoon called “Blogjam”, where he illustrates stories from people’s blogs. One week he featured my blog post.