Rare sightings

A few weeks ago I was teaching one of my gardening classes when a student came up to me during break and identified herself to me again. I’d already taken roll at the beginning of class by way of having the students tell me their names, as no one ever mispronounces their own name. Despite having heard her say her name and also seeing in print where I’d checked it on my roster, I hadn’t made that connection.

I know her. Or, knew her — we’d had a class together about eight years ago. Once she pointed that out, I recognised the name as being familiar, and excused myself by way of saying that I’m really bad at remembering faces. We asked each other polite little questions about what the other was doing now, and then break time was over and I diverted my attention back to teaching.

Every day for a semester, we’d sat together at the same lab table. During a school semester, I will generally learn to identify a student or two. A handful of other students will be familiar upon seeing them in the classroom, or out in the hallway studying before class. The teacher I will remember after the semester, at least for several months afterwards.

But people who don’t repeat during my lifetime will fade from my ability to identify them.

The ordinary person might not be surprised that it’s hard to recognise the once-a-year people. I see my departmental secretary maybe twice a year, as I only teach after business hours. I don’t know who she is when I see her any more than I know who my ophthamologist is, except for the fact that I expect to meet someone matching a couple of the vaguest identifiers when I am in their respective offices.

It’s the people who were regular satellites in my days, whom I saw for months on end, that everyone assumes I “ought” to be able to remember. And I do remember that there were such people in my life. Given a couple minutes, I can usually dredge up a name from memory. But no matter how many hours I spent with them for a few days a week, these people are more like comets than distant moons in the solar system of my life. They exist in the firmament, bright and notable for a period of time, then disappear from view and fade away.

A great portion of the inability to know these people later on is that one of my main mental crutches for identifying people, that large portion of the “likelihood set” for meeting someone, is the location. Once the class is over, once I am no longer working for that company, once I no longer attend meetings at that same time and place, I don’t have that necessary cue for distinguishing between the people whom I expected to see there.

Even then, I’m often fuzzy on personal details. I learn to associate names with sets of nonfacial characteristics. But figuring out who’s who during my first weeks, and then tracking the changes in those identifiers (new haircuts, glasses, major wardrobe changes, weight loss and such) keeps a large portion of my awareness busy. When you spend time just learning to identify people, there’s less time and energy available for absorbing the personal details that help create interpersonal bonds. These things other people do so easily, so unconsciously, recognising each other, engaging in chit-chat, and following the changing group social dynamics, are things that I do consciously. Some days I’m too focused on work to spend the extra effort required to puzzle out what’s going on in the “soap opera” side of the business world.

The next week one of my students was someone who had attended the same church a couple decades ago. How in the world do people remember these sheer numbers of individuals they saw briefly once a week, oh so long ago? Knowing who is who, what they used to do, the details of their personal lives, who they used to work with, their particular skills, and their social connections, all attached to their faces, is just too much. Artificial memory aids don’t help me; it does me no good to collect pictures of people or yearbooks or business cards with photographs as I can’t recognise people from their ID photos.

Faceblindness not only makes immediate daily life more difficult; it also plays hell with networking. There are literally hundreds of people out there who know who I am when they meet me again. But I am adrift, wandering through life surrounded by crowds of effective strangers. I can hardly keep track of them when I am with them. When my hubby forwards me newsbits about how a large percentage of jobs are acquired through networking rather than the anonymous process of filling out forms, I can but sigh heartily. It’s not that I don’t care about people. It’s not that I’m not friendly, or helpful. I get excellent employee reviews. But the sad fact is that I cannot remember masses of people well enough to keep track of them.

For the faceblind, networking is all work, and not much net. There’s especially little social “safety net” when one has more “know-how” than “know-who”.



  1. Bizz said,

    4 January 2011 at 20:59

    I have really enjoyed reading your blogs about this, and found it when I googled prosopagnosia after reading the article on CNN today about the doctor with this condition.

    I am very face oriented and remember almost every face I meet, so this is hard for me to understand, but it does maybe explain some people I have met in the past.

    I don’t mean this to sound rude or be offensive, but in a previous post, you point out that to you faces are not important. In fact faces are the most important thing to most people, with their names being second in importance.

    If you tried to make faces more important to you, do you think that you would remember them better? Again, I am not trying to be rude here. But that is exactly what most of us “face-centered” people think when meeting someone who can never remember us or don’t even recognize us. That meeting us and remembering us wasn’t important enough to them to begin with. Just curious.

    • andrea said,

      31 January 2011 at 4:36

      I think the post you are referring to is when I was drawing an abstract of a cat. In that regard, I was the only student who had no put any facial features on my drawing (the perspective was from the back), because I felt that the facial features were not necessary to make the figure recognizable as a cat.

      This does not mean that I don’t think faces are important in the overall scheme of things — of course they are! In fact, knowing how important faces are to others helps explain little moments in life, such as when a student thought that I shouldn’t be able to recognize him because he had a mask on. “Of course I can tell who you are,” I explained to him, “you still sound the same and walk the same and have the same build and hair style!”

      I can draw faces and take notes about people’s faces and look at ID photos of their faces, but none of these things helps me to later visualize or remember what their face looks like or recognize them instantly by their face.

      Again, faceblindness is NOT about a lack of interest in the person — I can’t even picture the faces of my family members! When I take photos of people, I know who they are because I remember the photo-taking event, and I usually identify others in photos because of their haircuts or clothing I’ve seen them wearing.

      Unfortunately, “trying harder” doesn’t make the glitch in my brain disappear.


    • Katharina said,

      8 February 2011 at 10:31

      I realize that you don’t want to be rude, but you should know that what you are saying is really upsetting to us ‘prosos’. It’s like asking a deaf person why he doesn’t try harder to hear. Not only does that make him a kind of liar: you do not really believe that he is really, truly deaf. Your reason for not believing is also kind of strange: If we take the deaf person again, you don’t have experience in being deaf (I assume). But you have no difficulty in believing that he is deaf and has problems associated with this condition.
      Lastly, what makes your question so upsetting is that this is exactly the kind of question, or rather reproach, that we have had to deal with all of our lives, daily. I know my mother was always at me, accusing me of not being interested in people, and being absentminded, and everybody was being very insistent that it was my duty to smile more. I remember I was putting a lot of effort into making myself look people in the eye when talking to them, because someone had told me I didn’t and should. That was very hard, but I’m glad I did it. I can now imitate a ‘normal’ person pretty well, as long as I don’t have too many people to deal with at once.
      The thing is, we all had to deal with this when we were children, and didn’t know that it was really a disability and not our fault. And you know how scars from your childhood still hurt deeply even when you’re old. So, while I know that you don’t want to be rude, you should know that what you are saying is deeply upsetting to me and probably some others here too. I just want you to know that so you don’t say this kind of thing to someone personally.

  2. Wendsong said,

    20 October 2007 at 15:06

    You describe the frustration of it so well. It is so difficult to join a group of similarly career minded people with the intention of networking and furthering my career through their association, when I am really just bouncing around with no real anchor (their face) to attach to. Even without knowing the cause, these face sighted people discern that “drifting” and fail to follow-through. I am left with a number of pointless business cards with no idea who gave them to me, what they looked like or what we discussed. Even writing little notes on the back of the card, does not elicit this information from a brain that has only a wavering capacity for faces. You have lived in my shoes.

  3. spedusource said,

    20 October 2007 at 11:41

    I think our greatest problem with this issue is NOT how we don’t remember, but other people’s reaction to it. If I don’t remember someone, having them re-introduce themselves takes care of it. However, even if I’ve told them about my being faceblind, they still want to take it personally because everything is being read in a “normal” performance context. So whose disabled? The one who has trouble with memory, or the one who takes personal offense to someone else having such a difficulty?

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