Your face is familiar but I haven't the faintest idea who you are: Confessions of a Face-blind Raconteur

Share |

Several years ago I read a news report about prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, and thought immediately: that sounds quite a lot like me. The article included a link to the Prosopagnosia Research Centres at Harvard and University College London, and so I clicked through and completed one of their facial recognition tests (the main one is apparently no longer available unless you're a research subject), whose results indicated that while I may not have 'classical' prosopagnosia, my ability to recognise and remember faces is significantly impaired.

I have a very good memory. As a researcher and writer I rely greatly on my ability to remember things I've read, and can typically recall not only the approximate text of dozens of commentaries and quotations but their place on the printed page in the right book. For eventful days I can usually remember the weather, what I wore and the behaviour and moods of those around me. I have an exceptional memory for places and am usually an excellent navigator. The problem is that I cannot reliably remember people's faces.

I have always wondered how television viewers could correctly identify their next-door neighbour as a suspect profiled on America's Most Wanted. I've never developed an appreciation for film because most of the actors seem essentially interchangeable. People's faces -- on the screen as in real life -- register mainly as a faint impression of hairstyle and expression.

That this might be a problem first became apparent a little over a decade ago when I first started undergraduate teaching courses at York University. I had trouble distinguishing one student from another when they came to see me during office hours or after class. There seemed little point in memorizing names when one brown-haired student looked pretty much like the next. For a while I asked them to use name cards, which worked as long as everybody sat in the same seat and no two students looked too much alike. But the plan fell apart every time someone vaguely familiar spoke to me in the elevator or at the Department office.

After reading about prosopagnosia, I began telling my students about face-blindness, and found them accommodating, if a bit bemused. The problem seemed to have found its own resolution.

But then, last fall, when the Imagining Toronto book first came out, I realized I had entered a whole new sphere of difficulty. Whoring out the book -- talking to people, attending literary events, readings, launches and parties -- meant encountering new faces on a nearly daily basis. I ran into trouble almost immediately. At my own book launch I ignored a woman I'd known and admired for years. She'd cut her hair and as a consequence I hadn't the faintest idea who she was. While signing books I employed a trick that had worked well with unsuspecting students, asking people to remind me of their last name (I remember names well, especially if I've seen them written, just not their association with faces).

Prosopagnosia is a banal neurological quirk, appearing to involve a processing deficit in some obscure quarter (or quarters) of the brain. It is believed to affect at least 2% of the general population, making prosopagnosia not at all rare. While some face-blind people report experiencing social and other challenges, prosopagnosia has not stopped well-known neuroscientist Oliver Sacks (who apparently cannot reliably recognise even his own face) nor primatologist Jane Goodall (whose account of prosopagnosia appears to resemble my own) from excelling in their careers. In my case, it is unclear whether I have 'classic' prosopagnosia, although I exhibit its core symptoms. There is no suggestion it is associated with other neurological deficits, although for many years prosopagnosia was believed to result only from brain injury.

The biggest problem with prosopagnosia, apart from the social embarrassment of failing to recognise acquaintances, friends and sometimes family members, is that those who have it are sometimes labeled arrogant or snobs when, in truth, they may simply not have recognised the person they've passed on the street. In my case, I can generally recognise familiar faces but may not know which world (scholarly, literary, biking, urban advocacy) to place them in and therefore the right names to assign to whom. I do easily recognise close friends and family members (not that I could describe them very well to a third party).

As a writer I've become an enthusiastic user of social media not only because it's a cheap and effective way of communicating with like-minded folks but because people generally upload profile pictures I can use as visual mnemonics. I do not experience nervousness when speaking or reading in front of large audiences, perhaps because there's no need to remember people's names until afterward. I talk easily to strangers because there's usually an expectation of mutual introduction.

The problem is with social events, at which I've developed the strategy of moving through the room, ideally with a glass of wine, looking available and waiting for people to come over and say hello. It doesn't work all the time -- even familiar people often require some collection of cues (gait, body language, expression, voice or distinctive facial feature) in order to me to assign an identity to them. But once I've got someone sorted out I can usually recall just about everything I've ever known or read about (or by) them.

And it isn't as if being face-blind is all bad. As Gwendolyn MacEwen's amnesic narrator comments in Noman's Land, "one of the nice things about not remembering anything was that the world was almost unbearably beautiful, everything was fresh and new. The city was full of surprises."

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page