Prosopagnosia — ‘face-blindness’ — described

I first learned about prosopagnosia in 2000 as a student at the University of Washington. A biology professor mentioned facial recognition in a lecture, sending me searching online. I found a website titled “Prosopagnosia and Stones” that used boulders shown in different light and weather conditions to show how people’s appearances can change in a way that stumps prosopagnosics. It was a lightbulb moment for me – other people can recognize each other just from their FACES?! It seemed wild. I was 29 years old at the time.

In terms of facial recognition, I had been blundering along for most of my life. Originally, I worked as a newspaper reporter, which was manageable as a prosopagnosic because every story’s subjects were new to me, so I had to ask them their names no matter what. The people I interviewed were usually where I expected them to be, for instance behind the counter in a shop or sitting in their own offices. I didn’t develop a lot of specific workplace coping skills during those years. I did okay identifying my colleagues, in part because they were diverse in age, hair color, clothing style, etc. And also because in a newsroom, everyone has their own little territory and pretty much stays in it


My understanding is about one in forty people have prosopagnosia or ‘face-blindness’. The condition manifests across a spectrum, with some people unable to recognize even themselves in a photo to others who are just really bad at remembering faces. I have the condition to a moderate degree. Once I become familiar with people, I can usually recognize them. Lots of people together can be very difficult because the sheer number of faces is confusing. It can be sad and isolating to have prosopagnosia, especially if you do not know you have it, which is the case with many adults and children. Sometimes faces that should be familiar to me astonish me. Sometimes something registers but not enough to know who it is. Prosopagnosics often make friends with people who have uniquely characteristic features or who live or work nearby. In my experience, I think this is because the identifiers these people have make the early stages of friendship much easier to negotiate. ABN

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