It happens to most of us from time to time; someone comes up, calls us by name and launches into a chummy conversation. Though you can’t recall their face, within seconds it’s clear you and this someone have a relationship of some sort. And so, you nod politely, desperately analyzing their conversation for some clue.
Most of us forget the people we have met before from time to time; but imagine if this happened to you daily? — if the stranger speaking to you could be your spouse, your mom, or your boss?
An astounding one in 50 adults show symptoms of prosopagnosia — a condition known as “face blindness.” For those with severe face blindness, the condition can be socially crippling. But for the many people with milder cases of face blindness, it can cause a constant stream of embarrassing situations, is often socially isolating and can also be professionally limiting. For many with face blindness, it may not be until midway through their life that they realize exactly what their problem is — and that they are different from other people.
Bill Choisser, who lives in San Francisco, founded an internet group for people like himself and came up with the term face blindness. He tells some interesting stories about the problems he has confronted. “I met my mother on the sidewalk and did not recognize her. We walked towards each other, and passed within two feet of each other … The only way I know about this is because she told me about it that night. She was not amused at all by this incident, and she has never forgiven me for it,” he writes.
By 1996, Bill — then almost 50 — realized that he could not recognize other people from their faces; and started to connect with a few others with similar issues. An internet support group was formed and grew rapidly as people around the world previously isolated by their weird disability realized that they were not alone.
Scientist Romina Palermo is doing postdoctoral research into face blindness, at the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science. “We’re trying to find out more about what is actually going on with people who have congenital prosopagnosia. There’s likely to be more than one area of deficit,” she says. “For some people, it seems to be related to early perceptual development, where they have just not been able to get a good visual image of the face, while for other people, it seems to be something about the way they store memories of faces — they can’t match them.”
Researchers have noticed that face blindness seems to run in families, so Palermo’s team is also working with some geneticists to try to identify the genes involved. “We’re looking for techniques that might help people become better at recognizing faces,” she says.
The group will soon start some functional-imaging studies where they will be able to look at the areas of the brain and the timing involved in processing information about faces. “We’re also trying to develop reliable diagnostic tests. There’s not a lot to help children yet. We often get contacted by parents who suspect their child may have congenital prosopagnosia and want to know for sure.”
Although scientists have long been aware that certain brain injuries can result in people losing their ability to recognize faces, the research into hereditary face blindness is very recent.
Neuroscientist Brad Duchaine based his doctoral dissertation in cognitive psychology at the University of California on the study of developmental prosopagnosia in the late 1990s. It was a world-first analysis of the disorder, and other neuroscientists soon realized that the growing number of people connecting to each other through Bill Choisser’s internet group may hold the key to understanding a whole lot more about the human brain.
Duchaine now leads a research team at University College in London, where his team are gathering lots of information about the condition and how it relates to other key brain functions. Together with former colleagues at Harvard University, he is running online tests to try to assess the extent of face blindness in our society.
The online tests at faceblind.org help people to assess their level of face blindness, and the extensive databases that are currently being amassed have become a useful resource for researchers.
It’s very likely that face blindness follows a spectrum or a continuum; that is, some people may have extraordinary face memory, while others have no recall. “While there is quite a range for face-recognition skills in the general population, my guess is that some developmental prosopagnosics are qualitatively different from people with normal face recognition, but that still remains to be demonstrated,” Duchaine says.
“On the other hand, there are some people who are very good with face recognition. Richard Russell, Ken Nakayama, and I — with Richard as first author — had a paper accepted that is the first to document such people. We call them super-recognizers.
Other researchers into this phenomenon have found that it is possible to train people to be better at recognizing faces. “Joe DeGutis, now in Boston, found some encouraging data from one woman,” Duchaine says, giving an example. “She trained off and on for months and found the training made a real difference for her in everyday life. Joe also collected some neural measures that suggested her face processing has improved after the training.”
While we often link our ability to remember faces with our ability to remember names, it seems that these are quite separate neurological tasks. “[Neurological] cases that have lost their face-recognition ability yet maintained naming abilities, and vice versa, indicate that they are handled by different brain mechanisms,” says Duchaine. “Of course, they must often work together,” he adds.
While face blindness is a fascinating neurological condition for researchers, for those who suffer from it — and for their families — it’s debilitating and embarrassing.