It can be very embarrassing – you meet someone who clearly knows you, but you have no idea who they are. It could be due to a simple memory lapse or it may be the result of a brain disorder that affects one in every 50 people. Face blindness – or prosopagnosia, to give it its proper medical name – is a condition in which sufferers are unable to recognise the faces of other people.
Famous people with face blindness include actor Brad Pitt, who told Esquire magazine that people’s faces start fading from his memory as quickly as he ends a conversation with them, and if he meets them again, he won’t recall who they are.
“So many people hate me because they think I am disrespecting them,” he said, adding that they think he’s conceited or egotistical. “But it’s a mystery to me.”
Sound familiar? Here’s what you need to know:
- It’s not known what causes face blindness. All that is understood is that the brain does not seem to be able to switch on its facial recognition abilities.
- It can result from a stroke, traumatic brain injury or a degenerative disease of the brain.
- Some people seem to have been born with it. One theory is it could be due to an abnormality in the part of the brain that coordinates the systems controlling facial perception and memory.
- Researchers have discovered that people born with cataracts struggle to identify faces in later life, even if their cataracts were successfully removed when they were eight weeks old.
- Congential prosopagnosia appears to run in families, suggesting it may be due to a genetic mutation.
- It’s thought face blindness may be present in some children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and may contribute to their problems socialising.
- There is no treatment, but sometimes people who have face blindness as the result of a stroke or brain trauma can be retrained to recognise people by using other clues.
- People can suffer from face blindness to varying degrees. While some struggle to remember somebody they once met, others can fail to recognise family members and people they see all the time.
- Some people with severe face blindness are unable to recognise themselves in the mirror.
- Face blindness can be a problem for young children as they may willingly approachstrangers, believing they must know them.
- Face blindness can be socially crippling. People with it may be withdrawn in social situations or avoid them all together.
- Often people try to compensate by using other ways of recognising others – for example, by recalling unique physical attributes, like an unusual hairstyle or mole, or traits like a distinctive laugh.
- Some sufferers have described face blindness as being like trying to recognise people by their hands alone.