Most of us have run into someone who knows us be we don’t remember them. It is embarrassing, but not uncommon. How would you feel if you NEVER could recognize people you know, even family members -or you OWN face? Many have trouble remembering names but what about remembering faces?

Until the end of the last century scientists thought a condition called prosopagnosia, or  “face blindness,” was a rare condition. It wasn’t until the end of the 20th Century scientists became aware it was not uncommon at all, and was in fact a hereditary condition that affected about 2.5% of the population. How could it have gone for so long before it was recognized? Because the people who have the condition either became very good at hiding it, making adjustments, or become reclusive.

A Harvard University study found evidence to suggest that prosopagnosia may be caused by a single, dominant gene. If one parent has the condition each child has a 50% chance of inheriting it too. People with this condition have difficulty socializing normally because facial recognition is an important feature in memory. They pretend to be lost in thought while walking to cover up their inability to recognize other people. They avoid going to places where people they may know would be. They either try to act friendly to everyone, or are not friendly to anyone. They are often thought to be rude, cold or uncaring. Because many of them don’t understand it themselves they can’t explain it to others.

Prosopagnosia (Greek for “inabilty to recognize/identify familiar people “), is a cognitive disorder where the ability to recognize faces is impaired, while the ability to recognize other objects is fine. At first scientists thought it was a condition following some form of brain damage, but brain scans suggest impairment in the temporal or occipital lobes is involved, both areas of the brain are believed to be heavily involved  in facial recognition.

For a vast majority of people with prosopagnosia, they can see a face, but when they see it again they do not recognize it. They have trouble following a movie plot because they can’t distinguish the characters, and would never be able to identify anyone in a line up. Some, with a mild version, are able to identify a limited number of faces. Some have trouble identifying people in their own family. A closely related condition, called prosopamnesia, was found in children born with normal perception, but is not able to remember them.

In extreme cases, some are not able to recognize their own faces, let alone that of someone else. Gaylen Howard, a 45-year old homemaker in Boulder, Colorado, says that when she is in front of a mirror in a restroom with other people she “makes a funny face so that, I can tell which one is me.”

Most affected have been able early on to identify others using ‘feature by feature’ recognition, such as voice, clothing, hair color, body shape, etc. Conventional therapies have not been very successful in helping with this condition. It is probably because subjects have been able to adapt that the condition went so long before being recognized.

Scientists believe facial recognition may involve more than one area of the brain, and may even have an area devoted entirely to that function, because even within the same family individuals do not all have the same types or levels of the condition.

My name is Ron White, I am a memory-training expert, memory keynote speaker, and two-time USA Memory Champion. I hope you enjoyed this article, and understand a little more about prosopagnosia and the fact that some people actually do have problems with facial recognition and remembering facial features of others.



Time Magazine – Do I Know You? July 17, 2006, pg. 56

Wikipedia – Prosopagnosia: